Lewis Hamilton has admitted that his hopes of sealing a fifth world championship are in grave danger as his winless start to the new season continued.
Hamilton reduced the deficit to leader Sebastian Vettel in their title battle to only nine points after Max Verstappen’s collision with the Ferrari driver during Sunday’s frenetic Chinese Grand Prix.
But – after dominating practice on Friday – Hamilton and his Mercedes car have subsequently been well off the pace at a circuit where they have ruled in recent seasons.
Hamilton could not get his rear tyres to work in the cold conditions in qualifying, but there was still no improvement in his form on Sunday despite the warmer temperatures.
The 33-year-old Englishman was the hot favourite to beat Vettel to this year’s title, but he now believes that his once-dominant Mercedes team are behind Ferrari and indeed Red Bull in the pecking order.
“Who knows what this season holds, but if it continues this way it is going to be very tough to win the championship,” Hamilton said.
“We underperformed in qualifying and the race was a disaster on my side of the garage. I need to try and rectify that and get myself back into a normal performance.
“It has not changed my thinking about the season, and my goals are obviously still the same, but it is clear from this weekend that we are not the quickest.
“We are the second or third fastest team at the moment so we have got some improving to do, but that is not impossible.”
Hamilton started fourth on the grid and lost one place off the start line. He was then sitting in fourth, after moving ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, before Red Bull’s inspired pit-stop call paved the way for Daniel Ricciardo to win.
Hamilton, 33, felt he should have been called in for fresh rubber, too, but Mercedes – not predicting how fast Ricciardo and Verstappen would be on their new tyres – felt track position would be of greater importance.
And the British driver, who is due in Mercedes’ Brackley factory on Thursday, has now called on his team to raise their game in order to claw their way back into the championship fight.
“I have got to keep constructive pressure on the guys but they’re already pressured,” Hamilton added.
“They want to win just as much as the rest of us and it is about working as a team.
“I’ve got to take it upon myself to try and figure out what has gone wrong and move forward, but of course it is a joint effort and definitely on my side we have struggled more.
“I feel I was on top of my game. I came to this race and prepared exactly the same as always, but I (was) just uncomfortable in the car.”
Despite Ricciardo’s win, it was the aggressive tactics deployed by his hot-headed team-mate Verstappen which dominated the paddock discourse for a second weekend in succession.
Seven days ago in Bahrain, Verstappen collided with Hamilton, but in Shanghai, it was the Brit’s championship rival Sebastian Vettel who would feel the full force of the brilliant, yet exuberant Dutchman.
“It was completely Max’s fault,” said Niki Lauda, Mercedes’ non-executive chairman and three-time world champion.
“When you compete in more races you should get more clever – especially when you want to win or challenge for the championship – but he is going the other way. He needs to sort himself out. Nobody can help him.”
Verstappen may be only 20, but he has started 63 grands prix and is a three-time winner. This is his fourth season. “He is not young,” Lauda added. “He is old in Formula 1 now so he is like everybody else. It is not necessary because it hurts him as well.”