Off to a ‘brutal’ start, Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton struggle for understanding

MELBOURNE, Australia — When Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes set out for the final season of their enormously successful Formula One partnership ahead of his move to Ferrari for 2025, they knew expectations had to be managed.

The difficulty of the past two years, a consequence of a troublesome car to drive, meant no thought was given to signing off with a record eighth world championship for Hamilton, especially against the dominance of Max Verstappen and Red Bull.

2024 would instead be about making progress and at least being more competitive than the previous two years. A solid haul of podiums, maybe a win here or there, would be a success.

As Hamilton stood in the media pen in Melbourne on Sunday, keeping half an eye on the ongoing Australian Grand Prix while explaining his early retirement, he was fully aware how differently things had turned out. He’d flown to the other side of the world to qualify 11th and complete 15 laps on race day.

“This is the worst start to a season I have ever had,” he said. “It’s even worse than 2009, I think?” He chuckled as he looked for reassurance over such a damning statistic.

It is accurate. 2009 has been largely regarded as a low point in Hamilton’s early career, when McLaren lagged far behind the opposition. The start to that year yielded finishes of sixth and seventh after being disqualified from P3 in Australia (which was then the season opener). This year, after three races, he has a seventh, a ninth and a DNF.



F1 Australian GP takeaways: Ferrari takes advantage, Mercedes lost at sea

After all the winter optimism coming out of Mercedes — that the root issues that made the past years so miserable would be resolved — it’s not easy to downscale expectations so quickly.

“It’s tough on the spirit for everyone in the team,” Hamilton said. “You’re with the mindset that you are going to be fighting for wins and then obviously that’s not the case. Then you are like, OK second or third, but it’s not the case and it cascades a bit further down.

“You just go through the motions, and it’s challenging.”

What is striking about Hamilton is there is no anger or frustration, simply acceptance of the situation. “Surprisingly, I feel pretty good,” he said. “I’m trying to keep things in perspective, you know? It could be so much worse.”

Mercedes’ physics problem

The setbacks aren’t specific to Hamilton. Teammate George Russell has been ahead in qualifying at all three races so far, but only has a P5 and P6 to his name after crashing on the penultimate lap while running seventh in Australia — at which point he was 50 seconds off Carlos Sainz’s race-leading Ferrari.

It’s a huge margin, particularly after how closely-matched the two teams were at the end of last year. Mercedes thought it was in Ferrari’s ballpark at the season opener in Bahrain, only to be stymied by a cooling issue that cost both cars a considerable amount of time. After Sainz’s win on Sunday, the gap looks gigantic.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ team principal, admitted the start to this season had been “brutally painful” in light of the Australia result. No matter how optimistic he wanted to feel about the future, digesting neither car getting to the checkered flag was tough. “Today, it feels very, very, very brutal,” he said.

Wolff described it as a “physics problem, not a philosophical or organizational problem” that Mercedes faces right now. This is still largely the same team that, only three years ago, was celebrating its eighth consecutive world championship, the longest streak in F1 history. You don’t lose the foundations of that success overnight.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 09: Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff walks in the Paddock prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 09, 2024 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

“I don’t think we are missing something. It is just a complication of what’s happening with the car that we can’t see,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said in Australia. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Lots of the worst elements of the previous two cars have been eradicated on the W15. Question marks over the suspension, gearbox and steering rack have all been answered. But the greatest issue remains the lack of correlation between the wind tunnel and what Mercedes sees in reality. It cannot understand why the car behaves like it does when it gets onto the race track.

It results in Hamilton and Russell lacking consistency with the balance of the car. Hamilton said after missing out on Q3 on Saturday that it “really messes with the mind” in the search for answers.

“In my career, in everything I’ve done before, be it in finance and investment, you know which screws to turn,” Wolff said. “Sometimes it takes time because back in my Williams days, I knew what was missing.

“But here, I don’t think we are missing something. It is just a complication of what’s happening with the car that we can’t see. It’s like an on-off switch.”

Honesty and hope

Like Hamilton, Wolff understands and accepts Mercedes’ situation. There’s no delusion over there being an instant fix.

It has required Wolff to adjust his approach. Unlike the past two years, races aren’t being declared as huge lows or, as in Brazil last year, “the worst weekend in 13 races”. That frustration has been replaced by a calm realism, by design.

“As an Austrian, we very much wear our heart on our sleeve and we see things very direct,” Wolff explained. “An Austrian says ‘that’s really s—.’ A British person would say ‘that’s interesting’. So I had to adapt the way I communicate in order to not create even more pressure in the team because it would break us.

“It’s not because of a lack of trying that we are not competitive. So I’d rather be helpful and encouraging and say ‘that’s interesting.’”

The lead-up to Wolff’s press call was interrupted by cheers and chants from the hospitality unit next door, where Ferrari was arranging its team photo to celebrate Sainz’s victory, and Charles Leclerc’s P2. Twelve months earlier, the team failed to score any points in Australia after Leclerc retired and a penalty dropped Sainz out of the points. McLaren, who finished third and fourth on Sunday, only fluked some points thanks to the late chaos. Here, it had finished third and fourth. Their turnarounds gave Wolff some optimism.

“On one side I want to punch myself on the nose,” Wolff said. “But on the other side, it is a testimony that when you get things right, you can turn it around very quickly. You’ve just got to continue to believe. But at the moment it is a very, very tough time.”

Mercedes also feels Hamilton still remains fully dedicated to the task of aiding its turnaround, even in his final season with the team.

“Lewis is as good as you can be,” Wolff said. “He’s in a situation obviously where, on one side, it’s super frustrating to see that we are not getting it. On the other side, look over the fence (at Ferrari), it’s pretty good what’s happening there. But that is not his main priority today.”

With 21 races to go, Hamilton and Mercedes have plenty of opportunities to enjoy more success together. The challenge now is how they define that success, and how much further they’ll have to temper their aspirations for this swansong campaign.



From surgery to F1 victory in 16 days: Carlos Sainz’s Australia win proves his mettle

(Lead photo of Lewis Hamilton: Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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