Lewis Hamilton is lost and running low on confidence as he remains well off the pace in Saudi Arabia

Lewis Hamilton is lost and running low on confidence as he remains well off the pace in Saudi Arabia

‘I don’t feel connected to this car. Whatever I do’: Deflated Lewis Hamilton is losing confidence as he remains off the pace in Saudi Arabia… but the seven-time champion is ‘not considering leaving Mercedes for 2024’

Lewis Hamilton stood up like a little boy who had his lollipop knocked off him. His feet were together, his knees bent, his shoulders hunched, his hands at his sides. And his voice is barely a whisper, at times, as he admits he’s lost faith in his Mercedes.

That was the sad face of the seven-time world champion, who stood as a semi-traumatized figure by the Red Sea on the eve of a Saudi Arabian Grand Prix opened by the unexpected early exit from qualifying by the defending world champion champion Max Verstappen with driveshaft failure.

Part of the angst gnawing at the master was personified by the apprentice standing next to him in the paddock, one George Russell, his team-mate, 13 years his junior, and on the day fourth fastest around the white-knuckle road. this circuit at his own eighth best. Worse, three-tenths of a second separates one Silver Arrow from another.

Up front, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez was left to set the standard with just his second career pole – both achieved in Jeddah – with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc second fastest and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third.

Alonso joined Perez on the front row, with George Russell third, four tenths adrift of Hamilton

Alonso joined Perez on the front row, with George Russell third, four tenths adrift of Hamilton

By the time the grand prix starts under the lights tonight, Alonso will have shuffled up a slot while Leclerc has dropped 10 places due to a change in engine electricals. There remains the possibility, however plausible, that the 41-year-old Spaniard could fly out of Saudi to the drivers’ standings. It’s the kind of conversation Lewis loves, but not him, and it’s clear that every moment of consideration of reality is heart puncturing.

When asked how disappointed he was, Hamilton, suddenly a man-child of 38, replied sotto voce: ‘George did great. He’s up there in the second row. The car obviously has performance. I don’t feel connected to this car. No matter what I do, no matter what I change, I can’t gain trust in it. I lost a bit here.’

You can see the gulf between the two rivals in black. Russell’s mega-watt eyes told his side of the story. He readily declared that it had been a better day than he had ever woken up expecting with a machine so heavily tuned that its basic concept was inherently difficult.

As for Hamilton, he got the last of his 103 wins 468 days ago here via the Corniche. The longest wait of his long career. And this week he raised the possibility of leaving Mercedes, expressing only the slightest hint of doubt over where his future might lie, before his boss Toto Wolff acknowledged the fact that he could be out the undisputed star of his team if he isn’t equipped with the ability to do so. him to claim the eighth world title that remains his guiding star.

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Hamilton, his voice dropping again, replied: ‘I wouldn’t say that this situation gives me much pleasure. I’m here, I’m done, I got the T-shirt. But I’m trying to be patient and work with the team to get us to a good place.

I’m not focused on what Toto said about moving to another place. I love this group. I’m so grateful to everyone I’ve been on the journey with.’

Tacking only very slightly, he added: ‘I don’t envisage being anywhere else. I can’t see myself stopping.’

Hamilton showed sullen moments after a poor night's work in Jeddah

Hamilton showed sullen moments after a poor night’s work in Jeddah

Don’t underestimate the import of the word ‘envisage’.

Another topic setting tongues wagging in the paddock is the departure this weekend of Hamilton’s trainer Angela Cullen, a key caretaker for seven committed years. He did not shed light on the timing or reasoning, saying only: ‘Ange and I are good. He has moved on to another phase of his life. We are still super close. He texts every day. He is very supportive and I am very supportive of him. I am so grateful to have him on this journey with me. He was one of my closest friends and still is.’

Back to qualifying. Verstappen’s problems began in what he called a ‘big moment’ eight minutes from the end of Q2. He recovered. Then, his return at the end of the session hit shortly after.

Despite the obvious pain of having the expected pole ripped from his gloved hands, Verstappen can console himself in the knowledge that he can still claim victory with a hot lap on his way in. on the field in a Red Bull with magic carpet possibilities.

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