It is real – Lewis Hamilton amazed by ‘huge’ gap to Max Verstappen and Red Bull
Lewis Hamilton admits he is staggered by how far Mercedes are still behind the Red Bulls after Max Verstappen blew away the field to take pole position at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Verstappen hit back in style after seeing his record 10-race winning run and Red Bull’s unbeaten season ended in Singapore a week ago by finishing a massive 0.581 seconds clear of McLaren’s Oscar Piastri.
Lando Norris was third in the second McLaren ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez.
But Mercedes struggled again, with Hamilton qualifying seventh and George Russell eighth – the seven-time world champion over a second adrift of Verstappen’s pole lap.
The Dutchman and Red Bull have dominated the sport over the last two seasons and Hamilton admits the gap that still exists between the two teams is a major concern.
“We as a team really need to when we go back and do the debrief – I hope the team already realise – but a second gap is huge. And it is real,” Hamilton said.
“To be two years in and still be a second down to the Red Bulls is not a good showing and we need to make sure we work hard over the winter to get back at least half that gap before next year.
“We have a very peaky car. It is like trying to balance a knife on its tip.
“It is never perfectly balanced, it is one way or the other. You try and get it as close as you can to the middle but it is very hard to do each weekend.”
Verstappen topped every practice session but Norris and Piastri had closed the gap in P3 to hint at a fight for pole at Suzuka.
But it never materialised thanks to Verstappen’s incredible pace on new tyres in the final session.
To be two years in and still be a second down to the Red Bulls is not a good showing and we need to make sure we work hard over the winter to get back at least half that gap before next year
McLaren impressed again – especially Piastri who had never even been to Japan before this week.
“It’s been a very good day for us. A P2 and a P3 – a great job by Oscar today and as usual, by Max – but a good day,” Norris said.
“I was pretty happy with my laps. It’s a tricky circuit; not easy to put everything together but it’s so quick around here and the smallest mistake can take a big amount of lap time.
“I’m happy. It’s been a good day and good positions for tomorrow.”
Mercedes are unlikely to be in the fight with Red Bull or McLaren but are set for a scrap with Ferrari as they tussle over second position in the Constructors’ Championship – which Red Bull are almost certain to clinch on Sunday.
Leclerc delivered a strong lap for the Scuderia to line up on the second row – although he does face an investigation for exceeding the maximum lap time – while Singapore-winner Carlos Sainz starts sixth.
“I hope we can have a good battle with Ferrari tomorrow,” Hamilton said.
“They had an upgrade this weekend so they are a little bit ahead of us and it is not an easy track to overtake.
“But I am still going to give it everything and hope I can give them a run for their money tomorrow.”
Yuki Tsunoda, who was confirmed to be driving for AlphaTauri next season alongside Daniel Ricciardo, delighted his home fans by qualifying ninth.
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