Formula 1: Lewis Hamilton's struggles part of a deeper issue?

Ahead of his switch to Ferrari for the 2025 Formula 1 season, Lewis Hamilton still has a swansong Mercedes season to complete. However, it has gotten off to a very poor start.
Formula 1
Formula 1 / Rudy Carezzevoli/GettyImages

Throughout the first two rounds of the 2024 Formula 1 season, things have largely stuck to the status quo: Max Verstappen and Red Bull are dominating yet again, while the field behind them is arguably as close as it has ever been.

That's even despite teams like Ferrari and Mercedes making big changes to their cars, but not really closing the gap. In the case of Mercedes, they opted to completely change their car in nearly every area for the 2024 season, after two troubled but still relatively successful 2022 and 2023 seasons saw them finish third and second in the constructor standings with a "flawed concept".

Their offseason efforts looked to be paying off after a decently strong preseason test in Bahrain, with both drivers happy with the improved balance of the car. The car also looked great on track, with its striking new silver and black fade livery for the new season.

However, after the opening two rounds in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, things have taken quite the opposite turn. In fact, they've secured their lowest points haul from the opening two rounds since the start of the V6 turbo hybrid era with just 26. For context, Mercedes managed to score 38 points in the same timeframe in 2022 and 2023, and both of those were their worst starts at the time also.

That's not even the biggest worry for the Silver Arrows.

The poor performance of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has been an even larger issue.

Through the first two races of 2024, Hamilton has qualified in ninth for the Bahrain Grand Prix and eighth for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, where he was nearly a second off the pace of polesitter Verstappen and just hundredths of a second away from being knocked out in Q2 by Ferrari's reserve driver and rookie stand-in Oliver Bearman. Those efforts were followed by finishes of seventh and ninth, respectively.

Of course, a large portion of the blame can be put down to the general performance of the Mercedes car, because it is clearly far from being a Red Bull challenger. However, when comparing these results to that of his teammate George Russell, things get a lot more concerning.

In Bahrain, Russell outqualified Hamilton by six positions to impressively start third on the grid before finishing the race in fifth. In Saudi Arabia a week later, Russell outqualified Hamilton again with a seventh place effort, and he finished the race well up the road in sixth.

This is the same driver whom Hamilton beat by 59 points in the standings last year. You have to hand it to Russell for being dissatisfied with his performance last season and clearly stepping it up a few levels to start this year. But at the same time, it's easy to see that Hamilton is also struggling.

In particular, the Brit seems to be having a hard time handling the rear end of the Mercedes, complaining a lot in Jeddah about not being able to stop the car sliding from corner entry to apex. He has also called on his team to "get on top of" the car's bouncing issues that have, somehow, returned in a fashion similar to the violent porpoising saga from 2022.

His lack of confidence in the car was clear as day when following closely behind Lando Norris entering the high speed first sector in Saudi Arabia, only for Norris to pull away by over seven tenths of a second. Yes, the McLaren is known to be a very strong car in high speed corners, but Hamilton's timidity and hesitance to push the car to its limit was evident.

It is also very possible that Hamilton, given his well-documented move to Ferrari for 2025, is no longer receiving preferential treatment as the No. 1 driver at the team and is not as heavily involved in the influence of car setup and development direction, as well as the team debriefs, if at all. If anything, his mind may already be at Ferrari.

"Right now, it’s looking like his decision to head off to Ferrari, mentally, he is already there."

David Coulthard

That's why Mercedes won't want Hamilton gaining any extra knowledge of their machinery, or their future plans, as he could easily carry it all out the door with him and hand it all over to Ferrari for any potential advantage. That will definitely be having an impact on Hamilton's ability to setup the car the way he wants, as he likely no longer has access to the resources he needs to do just that.

Where do Hamilton and Mercedes go from here?

One positive to take away from Hamilton and Mercedes' glaringly slow start to 2024 is that, while not as poorly, the pair of them have suffered from slow starts in each of the past two years, and rebounded nicely in both seasons.

At the start of the current ground effect, cost cap regulations in 2022, Mercedes were miles off of Ferrari and Red Bull, with Hamilton even being lapped by Verstappen in Imola early in the year. Come the midpart of the season in Canada, Hamilton scored his second podium finish of the year, and he was one of the most consistent drivers in the field from that point forward. Mercedes even scored a 1-2 finish in Brazil toward the end of the season.

Then in 2023, Mercedes again endured a slow start to the campaign, before switching completely to a more conventional sidepod design from the Monaco Grand Prix onwards and finishing second in the constructor championship. Additionally, Hamilton had an even more consistent season compared to the previous year, and was able to challenge Sergio Perez in the dominant Red Bull for P2 in the standings up until the final few races.

If Mercedes could pull off a philosophy change mid-season and finish second in the championship last season, then there's no reason they shouldn't be able to do the same with a new philosophy entering the season in 2024. They have a lot of issues to sort out, but they've shown in each of the past two years that they are capable of solving them to a large extent.

But in addition, an underrated part of Hamilton's prowess is how he can help develop a car and set it up the way he wants it almost perfectly. With the Brit likely being shut out of certain technical meetings as mentioned, that part of the equation is largely gone. Mercedes will need to learn how to develop a car without an experienced mastermind driver to assist them, and fast.

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No matter the circumstance, though, Mercedes and Hamilton are a lethal combination. With eight constructor championships and six driver championships won during their historic partnership, they can never be counted out.