By Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent, Jeddah
Lewis Hamilton has admitted he is lost and running low on confidence after another sobering evening in qualifying for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Hamilton posted only the eighth quickest time in Jeddah, 0.958 seconds adrift of Sergio Perez, who starts on pole position for Sunday’s race after Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen’s night ended prematurely with a mechanical failure. The double world champion will line up in 15th.
Fernando Alonso joins Perez on the front row for his rejuvenated Aston Martin team, with George Russell third, four tenths clear of Hamilton in the other Mercedes.
Perez and Alonso sharing the front row, Leclerc and Verstappen battling through the field… a mouthwatering race in store 🤤#SaudiArabianGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/KfQAwjeR9r
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 18, 2023
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc qualified second, but he is bumped down the order with an engine penalty. It means Hamilton will start seventh.
Twenty-four races have passed since Hamilton took the last of his record 103 victories following a monumental scrap with Verstappen here in Jeddah during the finals throws of their titanic 2021 title battle.
But that triumph 468 days ago, will seem like a distant memory for Hamilton, who cast a sullen figure in the moments after an underwhelming night’s work on the Red Sea.
“George did a great job and he’s right up there on the second row, so the car’s obviously got performance,” said the seven-time world champion.
“But 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.”
Hamilton’s future in the sport remains a hot topic. The 38-year-old is out of contract at the end of the year, and in the build-up to Sunday’s race, Toto Wolff admitted for the first time that he would not blame his star man for leaving Mercedes if the sport’s once dominant team fails to halt its slump.
And although Hamilton insisted he is committed to the Mercedes cause, he tellingly revealed he is getting little satisfaction from being so far off the front.
In Bahrain, he crossed the line fifth, a whopping 51 seconds behind winner Verstappen.
“I love this team and I’m so grateful for everyone that’s been on the journey with me,” he said.
“I don’t envisage being anywhere else. I don’t see myself quitting, I don’t feel like I’m a quitter.
“But I wouldn’t say that it’s giving me a lot. I have been there, done that, got the T-shirt many times.
“I am trying to be patient and work with the team to get us to a good place. I’m not planning on going anywhere else but I couldn’t get any more out of the car today. I’ve got to keep trying.”
Hamilton’s preparations have been overshadowed by his sudden split from performance coach Angela Cullen.
The New Zealander has been a key fixture of Hamilton’s small inner circle for the past seven years.
“Me and Ange are good,” said Hamilton as he downplayed paddock rumour of a rift.
“She’s moving on to a different phase in her life. We’re still super-close and we have been texting every day.
“She’s massively supportive and I’m massively supportive of her. I’m so grateful to have had her with me on this journey. She’s one of my closest friends and she continues to be.”
A second career pole for Checo, but it’s a frustrating P15 for Max.#F1 #SaudiArabianGP pic.twitter.com/gujPOsLI6b
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) March 18, 2023
It was also a gloomy night for Verstappen, too. The defending champion had been the odds-on favourite to race to top spot under the lights after he finished first in all three practice sessions.
But drama struck when a suspected driveshaft failure hit Verstappen’s Red Bull.
He gingerly limped back to the pits but, with fewer than seven minutes of Q2 remaining, his mechanics were unable to resolve the issue.
Verstappen’s qualifying was dramatically over and his father Jos removed his headphones despondently at the back of the Red Bull garage.
He will now have to carve his way back through the field at the fastest street circuit on the Formula One calendar. But given his supreme speed, a second Verstappen victory in as many races should not be ruled out.