Lewis Hamilton says it’s “massively exciting” to head into the 2021 Formula 1 season knowing Mercedes is playing catch-up judging by the performance during pre-season testing, which he says has promised a “real great battle” at the front.
During three days of running in Bahrain two weeks ago, Mercedes struggled with rear-end instability and couldn’t match the speed of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. This means Hamilton and Mercedes potentially head into the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend as underdogs relative to Red Bull, depending on what gains have been made since testing.
Mercedes has downplayed its chances of making up the deficit immediately, with trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin saying after testing that “we need to put quite a focus on understanding why the rear end was a bit weak, how we can get it more stable and predictable”.
While the real competitive picture won’t start to become clear until Friday’s practice sessions at the earliest, Hamilton insists he is relishing the challenge and that the coming season will be great for fans.
“Each year is a little bit of an unknown, but of course more often we have a better feeling of what’s happening with our car,” said Hamilton when asked by The Race if he felt excited to be in the unfamiliar position of seeing Red Bull so strong while Mercedes has problems to work through.
“It’s massively exciting for us as a team. We are currently not the fastest and how are we going to work together, how are we going to unite in order to get to where we want to be?
“I’m so excited for that challenge and seeing so many other teams close. It’s going to be great for fans.
“But I love that collaboration with the men and women in my team and trying to get to our common goal.”
Hamilton referred to “multiple teams that are looking really strong” rather than singling out Red Bull.
But it’s clear that the battle at the front will be shaped by how much progress Mercedes had made in troubleshooting its problems since testing.
In contrast to the struggling Mercedes, the Red Bull looked assured and well-planted on track, suggesting that for the first time in the V6 turbo hybrid era it can hit the ground running.
Hamilton said he was encouraged by the work Mercedes has done in the interim, but stressed more work is required to get the car right.
“We are in the best shape we can possibly be in considering that we only had three days of testing,” said Hamilton.
“There’s been a huge amount of analysis [by] the engineers, the guys back at the factory, there’s a huge amount of data from everyone to try and understand, churn the numbers and make improvements in that short period. But I think we come here positive.”
He added: “We’ve tried to understand in terms of quantifying how big or small an issue we may or may not have. I think we’re in the early phases.
“Just knowing that everyone on the ground here, all the engineers and also the aerodynamicists in particular back at the factory have been working around the clock to rectify any abnormal things that happened with the new car, the new regulation shifts.
“I’m fully confident that they’ve, in the short space of time, done the absolute best. But it’s going to be continued hustle to get the car to be where we want it to be.”
Hamilton went as far as suggesting 2021 could be “the most exciting season yet” given the potential situation at the front.
As Hamilton only agreed to race for Mercedes in 2021 at the conclusion of his contract talks earlier this year, he was asked if the possibility this might be his final year in F1 was weighing on his mind. Instead, he insisted that the changes in F1 are energizing him.
“In the current position, I don’t feel like this is the end,” said Hamilton. “Of course, we’ve got these changes that are happening next year, which are exciting. I think this looks like it could be the most exciting season yet.
“We’ve got new teams, we’ve got new formats and it’s closer. I don’t feel like I’m at the end, but the next eight months or so, I’ll find out whether I’m ready to stop or not. I don’t think I will personally, but you never know.”
Hamilton also suggests that the steps F1 is taking to be more socially conscious in the wider sense contribute to his positive outlook when it comes to the possibility of continuing to race in 2022 and beyond.
“I think this sport is in, I think, the best place it’s been in terms of the steps we’re taking,” said Hamilton. “I’m really proud of what F1 is doing in terms of acknowledging that they have a great platform to work towards a better world.
“And I love what I’m doing. I’ve arrived more excited than I have in a long time. I’m just excited to get going.
“We’re going to have a real great battle one way or another and that’s what I’ve always loved.”