Lewis Hamilton is lost and low on confidence as he remains well off the pace in Saudi Arabia

“I don’t feel connected to this car. No matter what I do’: Deflated Lewis Hamilton is lost and low on confidence as he remains well off pace in Saudi Arabia … but seven-time champion ‘doesn’t foresee’ leaving Mercedes for 2024

Lewis Hamilton was like a little boy who had his lollipop snatched away from him. Your feet together, your knees bouncy, your shoulders hunched, your hands at your sides. And his voice was almost a whisper at times when he admitted that he had lost all confidence in his Mercedes.

That was the taciturn face of the seven-time world champion, like a semi-traumatized figure in the Red Sea on the eve of a Saudi Arabian Grand Prix opened by the unexpected early exit from qualifying of current world champion Max Verstappen with driveshaft failure.

Part of the anguish that gnawed at the master was personified by the apprentice beside him in the paddock, one George Russell, his teammate, 13 years his junior and on the day fourth fastest on this road circuit for his own eighth best. Even worse, three tenths of a second separated one Silver Arrow from another.

At the front, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez set the standard with just his second career pole – both taken at Jeddah – with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc second fastest and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third.

Hamilton clocked just the eighth fastest time at Jeddah, 0.958 seconds behind Sergio Perez

Alonso joins Perez on the front row, with George Russell in third, four tenths ahead of Hamilton

Alonso joins Perez on the front row, with George Russell in third, four tenths ahead of Hamilton

By the time the Grand Prix starts under the lights tonight, Alonso will have shuffled a spot while Leclerc has dropped 10 places due to an electrical engine change. There remains the possibility, albeit a fanciful one, that the 41-year-old Spaniard could fly out of Saudi Arabia at the top of the pilot rankings. It’s the kind of conversation Lewis would love to be in but he isn’t, and clearly the consideration of the fact at every moment is heartbreaking.

Asked how frustrated he felt, Hamilton, suddenly a 38-year-old son, replied sotto voce: ‘George did a great job. He’s right there in the second row. The car obviously has performance. I don’t feel attached to this car. No matter what I do, no matter what I change, I can’t trust that. I’m kind of lost with this.

You could see the gulf between the two black-suited rivals. Russell’s megawatt eyes told his side of the story. He gladly declared that the day turned out to be better than he expected on a machine that is being drastically rebuilt, so inherently poor is its basic design.

As for Hamilton, he took the last of his 103 wins 468 days ago here on the Corniche. The longest wait of his long career. And this week he raised the possibility of leaving Mercedes, expressing only the tiniest hint of doubt about where his future might lie, before boss Toto Wolff acknowledged the reality that he could lose his team’s unrivaled star if he doesn’t get equipment. able to allow 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 much pleasure. I’ve been there, done that, got the shirt. But I’m 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 somewhere else. I love this team. I am so grateful for everyone who is on the journey with me.’

Addressing just a little, he added: ‘I don’t intend to be anywhere else. I don’t see myself giving up.’

Hamilton cast a brooding figure in the moments after an underwhelming night's work in Jeddah

Hamilton cast a brooding figure in the moments after an underwhelming night’s work in Jeddah

Don’t necessarily underestimate the importance of the word ‘predict’.

Another subject that is making waves in the paddock is the departure this weekend of Hamilton trainer Angela Cullen, a key attendant for seven dedicated years. He didn’t clarify the timing or reasoning, just saying, “Ange and I are fine. She has moved on to a different phase in her life. We’re still super close. She is texting everyday. She is extremely supportive and I am extremely supportive of her. I am so grateful to have had her on this journey. She is one of my closest friends and still is.

Back to qualifying. Verstappen’s troubles began with what he called a “big moment” eight minutes from the end of Q2. He recovered. Then, his session-ending setback occurred a few moments later.

Despite the obvious pain of having his long-awaited pole snatched from his gloved hands, Verstappen can take solace in the knowledge that he can still claim victory by slicing his way through the field in a Red Bull with magic carpet possibilities.

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