Hamilton qualified fifth on Saturday, with Ferrari and Red Bull occupying the front two rows as Charles Leclerc beat Max Verstappen to pole, while the other Silver Arrow of George Russell was down in ninth.
Having cut a downcast figure for much of the pre-season as Mercedes struggled to keep up with their rivals, the seven-time world champion appeared in a more positive mindset after qualifying,
despite playing down his chances of competing for the top places in the race, live on Sky Sports at 3pm.”I’m generally really happy today,” Hamilton told Sky Sports.
“Given where we’ve been the last few weeks, the struggles that we’ve had, the problems we’ve had with the car – it’s been a bit of a nightmare to drive – we’ve just kept our heads down, kept working away, so I’m proud of everyone for staying positive.
“To get fifth in qualifying, those guys ahead are in another league, so I’m generally happy with where we are. It’s not the front row, but we’ll make improvements, and we’ll do the best we can tomorrow.
but of course I’ll try to be as fast as I can and get ahead, but their performance is quite a bit ahead of ours. “During the third and final practice session in Bahrain,
Mercedes appeared to take a major step forward as Hamilton was finally able to drive without experiencing extreme ‘porpoising’ – a bouncing of the car in high-speed parts of the track that has plagued the team following the introduction of new design regulations for the 2022 season.
However, when push came to shove in qualifying, Mercedes were no match for their rivals, with Hamilton almost 0.7s off Leclerc’s time and more than 0.3s behind the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez in fourth.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff thought a lack of available fresh tyres may have cost his team some time in qualifying, but expressed concern over the gap to Ferrari and Red Bull potentially being even more significant in race conditions.
“I think we are seven-tenths behind with one car, that is where we are. We had only one run on the new tyre in Q3, that’s probably another two-three tenths, so realistically it’s about half a second that we are missing on a single lap,” Wolff said.
“Let’s see tomorrow. I’m a little bit wary about where we will be tomorrow, but in any case it’s learning. “It was a disappointing first qualifying session for Russell as Hamilton’s team-mate, having consistently appeared to be slightly quicker than the veteran throughout practice earlier on Saturday.
With Mercedes able to give both drivers just one run on new soft tyres in Q3, Russell failed to get his in optimum condition and locked up into the first corner, blowing his chances of improving the time he had earlier set on used tyres.
That meant he painfully finished behind the Alfa Romeo of the driver he replaced as Hamilton’s team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, along with Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, and the Alpine of Fernando Alonso.
Russell said: “Q2 I was pretty happy, to be honest, the car felt good, I was happy with the warm-up and I just tried something different and we only had one set of tyres, and
I really pushed on my out lap and I got to Turn 1 and I just had no grip and I went one second slower than I did in Q2. I was expecting to go a couple of tenths faster.
“It was a real shame. I’m glad I tried something, but it’s easy in retrospect. We know we’re not where we want to be and obviously P9 is much lower down than where the car is,
but we’re doing everything we can to try to get the car back to the front and fighting with the Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s. “Wolff defended his new driver, suggesting the team had been responsible for Russell’s approach to his out lap.
“For George, it was probably us misguiding him in his last outing because we advised him to push the out lap stronger and he probably had no edge any more to the new tyre,” Wolff said.