Lewis Hamilton will have to consider leaving Mercedes if they cannot deliver a competitive car “in the next couple of years”, his team boss says.
Toto Wolff said he was “absolutely confident” Hamilton would sign a new contract at Mercedes this year.
But he added: “Nevertheless, if he wants to win another championship, he needs to make sure he has the car.
“If we cannot demonstrate we are able to give him the car in the next couple of years, he needs to look everywhere.”
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Wolff added: “I don’t think he’s doing it at this stage. But I will have no grouch if that happens in a year or two.
“I don’t think that Lewis will leave Mercedes. He’s at the stage of a career where we trust each other, we have formed the great bond among each other and we have no reason to doubt each other, even though this is a difficult spell.
“But so nice it will be when we come out of this valley of tears, and come back to solid performances.”
And he said that he and Hamilton were already well on the way to agreeing a new deal.
“We are talking about when we want to do it and how,” Wolff said. “We just need to change some terms – the dates basically.”
Hamilton also announced on Friday that his trainer Angela Cullen, who has been a key confidante in his inner circle of advisers for seven years and was at the first race of the season, has parted ways with him.
Hamilton wrote on Instagram that Cullen had “pushed me to be the best version of myself”, adding: “I am a stronger athlete and a better person because of her.”
Neither he nor Cullen said why she was leaving but Hamilton said he “wished her the very best as she takes her next steps to pursue her dreams”.
How did practice go?
Hamilton finished Friday practice in Jeddah 11th fastest, with team-mate George Russell fifth, to underline the fact that Mercedes have started a second consecutive season with no chance of championship success.
Russell was 0.467 seconds slower than pace-setter Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, with Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin second fastest ahead of the Dutchman’s Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.
Hamilton, who was 0.996secs off the pace, admitted he had “struggled” in both sessions.
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly were fourth and sixth, ahead of Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin and the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg.
McLaren’s Lando Norris was 12th, and British-born Thai Alex Albon 14th for Williams.
Verstappen also looked strong on race pace later in the session, setting impressive lap times on the soft tyre, although his pace was almost matched by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who was 10th fastest on a single lap, and Gasly.
On the medium tyre, Perez set the pace on the long runs, with Alonso the next most impressive followed by Ocon.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who was ninth fastest, spent much of the session apparently concerned about an engine problem.
The 25-year-old will start the race with a 10-place grid penalty for using too many engine parts after two separate failures of electronics control units in Bahrain forced Ferrari to fit a third for this race, when only two are allowed for a season.
Ferrari have also changed the entire power-units on both cars, without penalty, “as a precaution” after Leclerc’s problems in Bahrain.
The Ferraris’ unusually slow lap times seemed to have been caused by the team running their engines in a lower power mode than others, presumably for reliability reasons.
Mercedes look for development direction
Mercedes spent the time between the first race in Bahrain and this weekend’s event in Jeddah in meetings trying to work out a new development direction for their car.
Wolff said: “We’re, overall, not happy about the amount of downforce, the mechanical balance. All of it. It never comes alone.
“All these meetings are giving us clarity and more focus on where we need to tackle in order to turn this around quick.”
Wolff expanded on his admission at the first race that the team had made a mistake in pursuing the design direction they chose last year rather than switching to the one pursued by all other teams.
He said this had been influenced by the progress they had made last year, when they became more competitive as the season went on and Russell won the penultimate race in Brazil.
“The car got better and better,” Wolff said, “and then you start to question the concept of the car less than you probably should.
“We really tried hard to make it work because the data that we have extrapolated showed us that this works. We were proven wrong, very simply.
“You can see that the three quickest cars, including the Ferraris, have a similar concept of how they generate performance. That’s very different to ours.
“At a certain stage, we came to the conclusion that we got it wrong.
“Why we got it wrong, we’re still analysing because we followed data and we followed what simulations tell us and in that case, we were misguided by what those data showed.
“All of us involved in the decision-making process came to the conclusion that we can’t continue that way.
“We really tried to stick to it and we don’t want to, under any circumstance, run in a one-way street saying ‘We’re going to make this work no matter what’ because it doesn’t work.
“I don’t want to lose more time. My colleagues don’t want to as well.”
Problems at Alpha Tauri
Another team facing the reality that their car is not where they expected it to be are Alpha Tauri, whose team principal Franz Tost expressed his frustration in a news conference between the sessions.
“The engineers tell me we make some good progress but I don’t trust them anymore, I just want to see the lap time because this is the only thing that counts,” Tost said.
“Because during the winter months they told me: ‘The car is fantastic, [we] made big progress’ then we came to Bahrain and we are nowhere.
“There’s not enough downforce therefore the car is unstable under braking, and overheats the rear tyres. Washing out at the apex, then [hurts] traction. Everything that you need to do a good lap time.”
Their drivers Yuki Tsunoda and Nick de Vries were 13th and 17th fastest.