Lewis Hamilton admits 'it's a shock' as Mercedes top Bahrain practice

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Lewis Hamilton admits 'it's a shock' as Mercedes top Bahrain practice
Lewis Hamilton will leave Mercedes at the end of this season
Lewis Hamilton will leave Mercedes at the end of this season
AFP
Lewis Hamilton (39) warned his Mercedes team not to "get ahead of ourselves" on Thursday after unexpectedly topping the times ahead of team-mate George Russell in practice for this weekend's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

The seven-time world champion, who will leave Mercedes for Ferrari next year, said he felt much happier with the team's new 2024 car, adding that there is more performance "to extract".

"It's a shock, but we'll take it," he said. "It feels like a race car for once."

He acknowledged that although Mercedes had outpaced defending champion Max Verstappen's Red Bull in qualifying trim, the Dutchman's long run pace in race set-up was still much faster.

"Overall, I'm feeling much happier with the car than last year," he said.

"We've made some good improvements and it feels much more like a race car and it's a really good platform for us to build from.

"We just need to keep our heads down and keep chasing."

Hamilton topped the times under the lights at the Bahrain International Circuit with a best lap in one minute and 30.374, two-tenths clear of team-mate Russell with two-time champion Fernando Alonso third for Aston Martin.

Verstappen, who complained throughout a windy day, wound up sixth behind Carlos Sainz, whose Ferrari seat will be taken by Hamilton next year, and McLaren's Oscar Piastri.

It reflected his struggle for single lap pace, but he was consistent and fast on the long runs late in the day. Three-time champion Verstappen was not fazed by finishing sixth on the opening day.

Verstappen 'not worried'

"It's not too bad and I'm not worried by the gap to P1," he said.

"It's close and some people have opened up their engines for top speed, which we didn't. But we focused on ourselves and have been trying to find the sweet spot in the set-up. When we get that, we won't be far away."

Hamilton said Mercedes would be in "in the mix" for a podium position along with Ferrari, Aston Martin and McLaren, but expected Verstappen to "veer off" into the distance in Saturday's race, the first of an unprecedented 24-race season.

Hamilton has not won a race since 2021 in Saudi Arabia, where he claimed his record 103rd victory, a sequence of 45 races without a win.

He won 22 of the 45 races before that and believes that Mercedes can claim another title to which he said he wants to make a major contribution.

Russell said: "We're not going to get carried away after one day of practice.

"Our qualifying pace looks strong – we made some changes from the test and the improvement has exceeded our expectations, but ultimately our long run pace is what counts and Max looked comfortably quickest.

"I think we've got a fight on our hands with the Ferraris, McLarens and Aston Martin."

Nico Hulkenberg was seventh for Haas ahead of Lance Stroll in the second Aston Martin, Charles Leclerc in the second Ferrari and Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.

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