Melbourne: An uncompetitive Mercedes and admission that he is “struggling mentally and emotionally” have put Lewis Hamilton’s remarkable record at the Australian Grand Prix under severe threat this weekend.
Britain’s deposed seven-time world champion is bidding to make it an incredible seven straight pole positions in Melbourne.
But Hamilton has endured a torrid start to the season with Mercedes alarmingly adrift of pace-setters Red Bull and Ferrari, unable to challenge for grid position or victory in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The once-dominant German manufacturer has had problems with porpoising - bouncing at high speed - after a radical design overhaul in the off-season to meet new technical regulations designed to promote closer racing.
“Hard some days to stay positive,” the 37-year-old Hamilton said on Instagram last week.
“I have struggled mentally and emotionally for a long time, to keep going is a constant effort but we have to keep fighting. We have so much to do and to achieve.”
Hamilton, who was demoralised at the messy way his world crown slipped from his grasp last year in the final race at Abu Dhabi, described his car as “undriveable” after qualifying only 16th in Saudi Arabia a fortnight ago.
It was the first time since the 2017 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he crashed, that the Briton had failed to progress from the Q1 section of qualifying.
Things didn’t improve much during the race, ending 10th to earn a solitary point, some 1:13.948 secs adrift of winner, world champion and rival Max Verstappen of Red Bull.
While Hamilton managed third in the opening round at Bahrain, it was only after both Red Bull drivers - Verstappen and Sergio Perez - retired in the closing stages.
After those back-to-back races to open the season, Mercedes have had an extra week to dissect the data and work on their problems heading to Albert Park.
Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko has no doubt Mercedes, who have claimed eight straight constructors’ championships, will fix their issues, denying their early form spelt an end to their dominant era.
“I’m fully convinced they’ll be back if they get the bouncing under control,” he told Formel1.de ahead of Melbourne.
“And Lewis Hamilton is nine points behind Verstappen so that’s nothing either. I don’t think it’s an end (of an era), but maybe it’s a fight on the same level.”
Hamilton might only be nine points behind Verstappen, but he’s already 29 adrift of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, with another failure this week making his quest for an unprecedented eighth world title even more difficult.
He can take consolation from Albert Park being a happy hunting ground, with the Briton Melbourne’s pole master, claiming it eight times and every year since 2014.
Hamilton was first on the grid when they last raced the circuit in 2019,before Covid forced a two-year hiatus, before losing the race to then team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
Despite dominating pole he has only translated it to victory twice, in 2008 and 2015.
We’re not going to rest until we’re back in the mix...It’s an exercise in humility and it’s going to make us stronger in the end, even though it’s not fun right now
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted it was “no fun at all” to see Hamilton and the team struggling to compete for the chequered flag, or even a podium.
“We’re not going to rest until we’re back in the mix,” he vowed to reporters.
“It’s an exercise in humility and it’s going to make us stronger in the end, even though it’s not fun right now.”
Albert Park, which has a new, faster layout this year, is where Mercedes first unleashed their all-conquering hybrid engine in 2014, which sparked their dominance.