Lewis Hamilton Japanese GP delight leaves mediocre Mercedes with bittersweet taste

Lewis Hamilton drove his Mercedes car to the limit in qualifying, but the Silver Arrows are still far from challenging at the front

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Lewis Hamilton has cut a miserable figure in the paddock since the first race in Bahrain this season, so it was refreshing to see the seven-time champion’s wide grin return at the Formula 1 2024 Japanese Grand Prix. The fact it came after he qualified seventh on the grid, however, was all the more puzzling.

It is an indictment of just how far behind Mercedes have fallen that their drivers are placed seventh and ninth and it is not regarded as a disaster, especially after they were the best of the rest in FP3 and just a few tenths shy of the Red Bulls. Toto Wolff was critical of the team’s performance, as he has been consistently.

Hamilton threw his W15 around the Suzuka circuit like a go kart, maximising every inch of the racetrack, and beamed with delight as he spoke of his enjoyment with the car setup.

“I was giving it everything. The team did a really great job this past week to understand it [the car] or make adjustments,” Hamilton told Sky Sports F1.

Lewis Hamilton at 2024 Japanese GP | Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton at 2024 Japanese GP | Mercedes

“It’s the first weekend I’ve not gone crazy with the setup and not been testing a bunch of things so it felt more normal, we got the car into a much nicer working window. Every lap has been really enjoyable to drive, the guys [at the front] are just a little bit faster.

“What it’s given us is that I know where the car is not strong enough, I can feel it in the car, and I know now to be tell them to ‘push in this particular area’. But I’m hoping the race will be stronger tomorrow.”

Mercedes happy with improvements

And yet, it is difficult to understand just why Mercedes are so happy with Hamilton’s P7. Not only are they behind Carlos Sainz, they were usurped by Fernando Alonso and both McLarens. Of their rivals, Hamilton is only ahead of Charles Leclerc – and the Monegasque had a disappointing session after a sloppy Q1 run.

With just 18 points on the board – Hamilton has eight, George Russell has 10 – the Silver Arrows are already playing catch-up to their rivals in the constructors’ championship. But the reality is both Ferrari and McLaren are comfortably quicker at the moment, and their battle is actually more likely to be with Alonso in the Aston Martin.

Despite that, Hamilton believes that they are heading in the right direction with the W15 – something their fans might object to after their recent results. Hamilton’s optimism was reinforced by Mercedes‘ trackside engineering director, Andrew Shovlin, who reflected on the positives after reducing the gap to Red Bull from 2023.

“We headed to Japan focused on trying to make the car more consistent and drivable over the weekend. Pleasingly, it looks like we’ve made some progress in that regard. We’d be a lot happier of course if we were a tenth quicker. That would have put us several positions higher up on the grid,” Shovlin said in a team statement.

“The reality at the moment though is we are the wrong side of a tight bunch of cars and need to find some more performance. Despite that, we have halved our gap to pole position from last year and can also be encouraged by the fact that even small steps forward will move us up the grid.”

The shift in attitude at Mercedes, where anything but a victory used to be deemed unacceptable, is seismic. But at least Hamilton is happy, which will put his yearning to hop into the quicker Ferrari car on hold for a few more months at least.

Joe Krishnan
Joe Krishnan
Joe Krishnan is an NCTJ-qualified journalist who has worked for a number of media organisations, including the Daily Express, The Mirror, Evening Standard, The Independent and Bleacher Report. Joe has been following F1 since when he watched Mika Hakkinen clinch the 1999 drivers' championship, and his first taste of real-life racing action was watching David Coulthard spin off into the gravel at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 2001.
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