Lewis Hamilton said he is powerless to change his downturn in results after qualifying a distant fourth for his 300th Formula One race.
Hamilton and his Mercedes team arrived in Le Castellet for Sunday’s French Grand Prix with high hopes of a revival.
A number of updates on Hamilton’s Mercedes machine – combined with the smooth Circuit Paul Ricard asphalt – had been expected to propel the Briton back to the front in his landmark appearance.
But Hamilton, 37, was left to reflect on another sobering afternoon after he finished an eye-watering nine tenths behind Ferrari’s pole-sitter Charles Leclerc.
Max Verstappen will join Leclerc on the front row, with Sergio Perez third in the other Red Bull.
Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell starts even further back in sixth – 1.2 sec off the pace – and beaten by McLaren’s Lando Norris, who lines up in fifth.
“It’s not that it is disheartening, but you do a lap and you are told it is 1.7 seconds off and you are like ‘what?,” said Hamilton.
“And then you do a really good lap and you are 1.1 sec off and you are like ‘wow’. There is nothing I can do in my power to change that.
“Everyone is working as hard as they can. Each weekend we come with little bits to try and improve, but sometimes that doesn’t make a difference and for sure that is difficult for everyone.
“The top two teams are in their own league. I came here this weekend hoping we would be within three tenths of them, and we are a second back. If it is anything like this it is going to be a while before we win, but it is not impossible.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who was joined by Dieter Zetsche – the former chairman of Mercedes’ parent company Daimler – at the back of the team’s garage, cut a largely disconsolate figure.
Wolff has overseen Mercedes’ remarkable record-breaking run of eight consecutive constructors’ championships – but as the sport approaches its traditional summer break, the once all-conquering team are no closer to unlocking the speed to allow them to compete with Ferrari and Red Bull.
“There were good signs in Silverstone and then we went to Austria – a track where we are normally not competitive and we could clearly see the signs why we were not competitive – but we were close,” said Wolff.
“We were three-tenths off in qualifying, and that was acceptable. So we brought a nice update package to Paul Ricard. The track is smooth, off we go, and then boom, no performance, and we can’t figure out what went wrong. That is a bit of a slap in the face.”
Hamilton will become just the sixth F1 driver to start 300 races when the lights go out on Sunday.
The seven-time world champion, already 99 points behind Verstappen in the standings, has 18 months to run on his Mercedes deal. Will the Briton reach 400 grands prix?
“We talked a few weeks ago about how long our partnership can go and the number that was discussed was five to 10 years, so we can get to 400,” joked Wolff.
Away from Mercedes’ troubles, Leclerc captured his seventh pole of the season to build on his comprehensive victory in Austria.
With team-mate Carlos Sainz to start last – punished for changing the engine which caught fire so spectacularly at the Red Bull Ring a fortnight ago – Ferrari used the Spaniard as a tow to pull Leclerc along. It worked to tremendous effect with Leclerc roaring to top spot, beating Verstappen by three tenths.
“It was a great lap,” said the Monegasque. “I have struggled all weekend to put a lap together but I managed to do it.
“I also had the help of Carlos and that was amazing team work, because without him it would have been much more close, so a huge thanks to him and I hope he can get into the fight.”
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