Lewis Hamilton had hoped for an improvement in the pace of his Mercedes car this weekend

Lewis Hamilton despairs as he’s ‘further than I thought’ in the slow lane

There are ways Lewis Hamilton could celebrate his 300th Formula 1 race with a victory: the three cars in front crash, get technical or lose their strategic marbles.

Apart from this cocktail of good luck, his chances are nil. No.

It was the stark reality the Mercedes star faced on his historic weekend after qualifying for the French Grand Prix put him on the slow path to nowhere.

Lewis Hamilton had hoped for an improvement in the pace of his Mercedes car this weekend

He was fourth, which is tolerable in this year of strife, but his almost one-second delay over Ferrari poleman Charles Leclerc is enough to cause an ulcer.

Hamilton’s fate is all the more heartbreaking as Mercedes anticipated improvement on the silky smooth Paul Ricard track. The upgrades offered hope. Design flaws were understood and corrected.

So the theory worked, until the wheels turned on Friday afternoon. And the proof of practice was bolstered by qualifying, which determined leader Max Verstappen would share the front row with Leclerc. Sergio Perez finished third.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took his seventh pole of the season from title rival Max Verstappen

Hamilton was at least helped by Carlos Sainz starting from the back of the grid for changing engines after his car went up in smoke a fortnight ago in Austria.

To add to Mercedes’ misery, George Russell was only sixth after Lando Norris in a facelifted McLaren came between his two fellow Brits.

As this latest setback unfolded, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff watched impassively from the garage. He learned to treat every new dawn as fake until proven otherwise. He later admitted that the day’s events had been a “slap in the face”.

Mercedes rookie driver Nyck de Vries took the cockpit in early practice and finished ninth

Mercedes rookie driver Nyck de Vries took the cockpit in early practice and finished ninth

Hamilton didn’t indulge in hype to reach 300 runs and join just five other long-toothed protagonists with that accolade: Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button. There’s too much work to do for this distraction and, anyway, it’s success and not longevity that lights up Lewis’ eyes.

After qualifying, he was rational, calm, determined – but not resigned. The fact that his name appeared above Russell’s no doubt served as a healing ointment.

“I thought we’d be within three tenths, but you go around and you’re told it’s 1.7 seconds behind, and you’re like, ‘What? “Hamilton said. “And then you have a really good lap and you’re down 1.1 seconds and you’re like ‘Wow’.

“There is nothing I can do in my power to change that. Everyone works as hard as they can. Every weekend we come with small improvements, but sometimes it doesn’t make a difference. It’s difficult for everyone.

“Where my focus is trying to understand this car better and working closely to tell the team what things I want on the car next year and what things I don’t want. .

“We are further back than I thought. I was hoping that at the next race in Budapest we could close a few tenths and be in a fight, but if it’s anything like that, it will be a while before we win. But it is not impossible.’

The Max Verstappen star saw his lead reduced to 38 points after Leclerc won in Austria a fortnight ago

In the hospitality suite, Wolff was also phlegmatic. Asked about Hamilton’s triple century and whether the 37-year-old, who has 18 months left on his contract, could string together another ton of runs, Wolff quipped: “We talked a few weeks of the duration of our partnership and the number discussed was five to 10 years, so we can come up with 400.’

If there’s no firm improvement, another decade would be about as welcome as a stretch in Pentonville.

While it’s dark at Mercedes, a light has come on in Leclerc’s season. The title fight is live.

Carlos Sainz and Ferrari must accept 10-place grid penalty after taking new engine parts

Carlos Sainz and Ferrari must accept 10-place grid penalty after taking new engine parts

It didn’t seem like it would be a few weeks ago, as Ferrari conspired to be its worst executioners with engine grmlins and strategy failures. But the Monegasque won at the Red Bull Ring, three months after his previous victory in Melbourne on April 10. And on Saturday a pole that showcased the best of teamwork, with Sainz providing a slipstream to help Leclerc establish a three-tenths advantage over Verstappen for his seventh pole of the season.

The pair attempted the same towing maneuver on the previous flying lap, but the coordination went wrong. They nailed it when it counted.

There are just two races left before the summer break and a win here and in Budapest next week would be a real boost for Leclerc. He is 38 points behind and getting that down to less than 25 – the value of a win – must be the immediate objective.

Fernando Alonso is the only other active Formula 1 driver to have reached 300 race starts

Fernando Alonso is the only other active Formula 1 driver to have reached 300 race starts

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