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'It’s a shock' – Hamilton left surprised by Mercedes’ early pace in Bahrain

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BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes talks to the media in

Lewis Hamilton says he was taken by surprise after topping the timesheets on the opening day of action at the Bahrain Grand Prix, with the Briton suggesting that Mercedes still have “work to do” to match the long run pace of Red Bull.

In the second and more representative practice hour on Thursday, Hamilton set the pace with a lap of 1m 30.374s, putting him two tenths ahead of team mate George Russell while reigning world champion Max Verstappen was nearly half a second back in sixth.

READ MORE: FP2: Hamilton fastest from Russell as Mercedes set the pace in second practice in Bahrain

Speaking after the session, the 39-year-old admitted that it had been a “crazy” first day and spoke of the difficulties posed by the windy conditions earlier on in first practice.

“[In] FP1, [we] were surprised. It was very, very windy this morning, so it was a really difficult session I think for everyone,’ Hamilton explained. “The track was so different compared to practice [during pre-season testing] last week. Otherwise it was feeling okay, but we didn’t really know where we stood on the C2 tyre, and then in this session, [with] the car, we made some improvements over the session.

“Again I don’t understand, it’s a shock to see us where we are. We’ll take it for now but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We need to keep our heads down, keep working on the set-up. I think our long-run pace is nowhere near the Red Bulls, for example, and I think we were a lot closer so we’ve got some work to do there.”

2024 Bahrain GP FP2: Onboard for Thursday’s fastest lap with Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton acknowledged that he is feeling “much happier” with the car last year following the team’s struggles with its predecessors over the past two seasons.

“My seat position is finally further rearwards, I’ve got a better feel for the car approaching the corners,” he commented. “There are areas that have been fixed and improved. It feels like a race car for once and the last two cars didn’t feel like that, so it’s a really good platform for us to work on and we’ve just got to keep our heads down and keep on chasing.”

AS IT HAPPENED: Follow all the action from second practice for the Bahrain Grand Prix

When asked whether he knows where work could be carried out overnight in order to close the long run pace gap to Red Bull for the rest of the weekend, Hamilton responded; “I do, [but] in terms of achieving that I don’t know how necessarily with the new car.

"With a new car you have all new tools, everything’s been redesigned and so all the previous numbers and names of things are completely shifted, so you’re learning a whole new vocabulary when it comes to the car set-up.

“We’ve tested some of them but not all of them, because we only had a day and a half [in pre-season testing], so yeah, we have to see. I hope that we can make a step. I’ve got a bit of an idea but I don’t know how to achieve that yet currently with the set-up changes without affecting the other side of things, a single lap, so we’ll see.”

Ultimately Hamilton is hopeful that Mercedes can be in contention for podiums in Bahrain.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG

Hamilton set the pace during Thursday practice in Bahrain

“I think we’re going to be in the mix,” said the British driver. “I think it’s a bit too early to say, but I think we’re there or thereabouts with Ferrari and maybe Aston [Martin] and McLaren. I don’t know exactly where we lie with those guys, but we’re around those so it’s going to be close.

“A nice battle with us, I think if Max is in the front he will veer off as he has done for the last couple of years.”

HIGHLIGHTS: Catch the FP2 action as Hamilton leads the way for Mercedes

Russell was similarly cautious when reflecting on Mercedes’ prospects after the session, with the 26-year-old saying that the squad need to gain a better understanding of why their pace appeared so strong in FP2.

“We’re not going to get carried away with ourselves,” he explained. “The qualifying pace looked really strong. We still need to try and understand why it was so good. We made some changes from the test and it exceeded our expectations, but ultimately the long run pace – which is where it all happens – Max was still ahead of us.

“It was very close with Fernando [Alonso], with Lando [Norris], and the Ferraris, and Lewis and I were very similar as well, so we’ve got a real fight on our hands in race pace. But as I said, we’re really pleased with the day, the car’s performing really well, but we’re not going to get carried away just with the timesheets just yet.”

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 29: George Russell of Great Britain and Mercedes looks on in the

Russell says that Mercedes will "not get carried away" by their early pace in Bahrain

The session was not entirely smooth for Russell, having had a bit of a moment at Turn 11 during his run on the soft tyre.

Asked about what had caused it, the Briton said: “We had an issue actually. We made a small error with the set-up adjust and I was bottoming massively, I don’t know if you could see all the sparks. Something didn’t feel quite right. I went into Turn 1, I locked up. Turn 11 the car was bouncing through, and it was only when we saw the data we realised that we made a small adjust and we fixed it for the next one.

READ MORE: FP1: Ricciardo tops first practice in Bahrain as 2024 F1 season officially kicks off

“Better now than tomorrow. As I said, we’re still learning this car. For myself and Lewis, for the engineers, for the mechanics, it’s new, and these things happen, but as I said, it’s been a really strong day."

The first qualifying session of the year will take place on Friday, and Russell sounded an optimistic note about whether the gap to Verstappen and Red Bull may have closed following their dominance in 2023.

“We need to sit down and understand where this increase in performance has come from, whether it’s a one-off, whether we can sustain this, and what we need to do to fight for a serious position on [Saturday],” Russell conceded. “As I said, our aim is to try and focus and fight for victory.

“After testing, Max looked a long way out in front. Now that gap has reduced, but he’s still out in front, and I think he’s still got a healthy margin to the others rather than just a ridiculous margin to the others, so by no means does this mean we’re back or we can fight with them just yet, but as I said, really, really solid day.”

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