Lewis Hamilton stood like a little boy who’d had his lollipop whipped off him. His feet close together, his knees sagging, his shoulders hunched, his hands by his side. And his voice barely a whisper, at times, as he admitted he had lost all confidence in his Mercedes.
That was the glum countenance of the seven-time world champion, standing as a semi-traumatised figure by the Red Sea on the eve of a Saudi Arabian Grand Prix blown open by the unexpected early departure from qualifying of the defending world 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 quickest around this white-knuckle road circuit to his own eighth best. Worse, three-tenths of a second separated one Silver Arrow from the other.
At the front, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez was left to set the standard with only his second career pole – both achieved in Jeddah – with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc second quickest and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third.
By the time the grand prix starts under lights this evening, Alonso will have shuffled up a slot as Leclerc plummets 10 places owing to a change of engine electrics. There remains the possibility, however fanciful, that the 41-year-old Spaniard could fly out of Saudi heading the drivers’ standings. It is the sort of conversation Lewis would love to be in, but he is not, and clearly every moment’s consideration of the fact is heart puncturing.
Defending champion Max Verstappen cut a dejected figure as his participation ended in Q2
Pole was taken by his team-mate Sergio Perez, who was 1.55sec quicker than Charles Leclerc
At Mercedes, George Russell and Lewis Hamilton (above) went fourth and eighth respectively
Asked how frustrated he felt, Hamilton, suddenly a man-child of 38, replied sotto voce: ‘George did a great job. He’s right up there on the second row. The car’s obviously got performance. I don’t feel connected to this car. No matter what I do, no matter what I change, I can’t get confidence in it. I’m at a bit of a loss with it.’
You could see the chasm between the two black-suited rivals. Russell’s mega-watt eyes told his side of the story. He willingly declared it to have turned out a better day than he had woken up expecting in a machine that is being drastically overhauled so inherently poor is its basic conception.
As for Hamilton, he took the last of his 103 wins 468 days ago here by Corniche. The longest wait of his long career. And this week he raised the possibility of leaving Mercedes, expressing just the tiniest hint of doubt over where his future may lie, before his boss Toto Wolff acknowledged the reality that he might lose his team’s unmatched star if he is not given equipment capable of enabling him to claim the eighth world title that remains his guiding star.
Hamilton, his voice dropping again, replied: ‘I wouldn’t say this situation is giving me a lot of pleasure. I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt. But I am 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 elsewhere. I love this team. I’m so grateful for everyone that’s been on the journey with me.’
Tacking only very slightly, he added: ‘I don’t envisage being anywhere else. I don’t see myself quitting.’
Don’t necessarily underestimate the import of the word ‘envisage’.
Leclerc will take a 10-place engine penalty for taking on a new electronic element in his engine
Third quickest was Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, but the Spaniard will start on the front row
Another subject setting paddock tongues wagging is the departure this weekend of Hamilton’s trainer Angela Cullen, a key attendant for seven devoted years. He shed no light on the timing or reasoning, only saying: ‘Ange and I are good. She’s moved on to a different phase in her life. We’re still super close.
‘She’s texting every day. She’s massively supportive and I’m massively supportive of her. I’m so grateful to have had her on this journey. She’s one of my closest friends and she continues to be so.’
Back to qualifying. Verstappen’s problems set in with what he called a ‘big moment’ eight minutes from the end of Q2. He recovered. Then, his session-ending setback struck a few moments later.
Despite the obvious pain of having the expected pole ripped from his gloved hands, Verstappen can console himself in knowing he can conceivably still claim victory by hot-rodding his way through the field in a Red Bull with magic carpet possibilities.
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