As Lewis Hamilton completed his post-qualifying interviews in Shanghai on Saturday, it was impossible not to hear the disappointment in the voice of the defending Formula 1 world champion.

After all, F1’s qualifying king - statistically undisputed - had not qualified outside of the top three at consecutive races for two years, when technical issues left him down the grid in China and Russia. Based on performance alone, he hadn’t been on such a run since 2014 (Austria and Great Britain).

The confidence that was so eminent at Mercedes after it wiped the floor with Ferrari in qualifying in Australia has taken a sharp turn. Two defeats in two races - both races that could have been won with a little more luck or a little more gusto - have left the German marque on the back foot and in need of a response. But in China, the feeling is that such a response will be forthcoming.

Fine margins between Mercedes and Ferrari in practice appeared to set things up for a tightly-contested qualifying, yet in reality, there was little competition. Mercedes required a second run on the Soft tyre in Q2 to leapfrog the Ferraris, completing three flying laps compared to the single efforts from Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

Hopes of a step forward on the Ultrasofts were dashed when, once again, Ferrari streamed away at the front. Raikkonen looked bound for only his second pole this decade before a last-gasp effort from Vettel gave him top spot, but unlike in Bahrain, neither Mercedes even got close to the front row this time around.

Both Bottas and Hamilton were half a second adrift, with their pace being such that even the Red Bulls were left a touch disappointed not to have mixed it with the Silver Arrows on the second row.

“I don’t know if we can challenge, we’re half a second behind today. Honestly, I can’t tell you if we can challenge,” Hamilton conceded after the session.

“We were quicker in the race than the last race, but they were able to hold on. They’ll probably do the same tomorrow.”

Bottas admitted he was surprised by the gap to the Ferraris at the front. “We thought going into today we could fight for pole position, but that was definitely out of reach,” the Finn said. "There was nothing in the lap that we could gain that much, in terms of getting the tyres ready, but not by half a second.

“I think they have a really strong car, you can see in very long corners they gain quite a bit on us. Now there is no speed difference on the straights and with the gains they are making on the corners, we have definitely work to do. Hopefully we can make up tomorrow what lacked today.”

The straight-line speed advantage Mercedes had enjoyed since the start of the V6 hybrid era in 2014 has disappeared. At a track such as the Shanghai International Circuit, not having that benefit is proving particularly costly.

But it is on the tyres where Mercedes really appears to be struggling this weekend. A few concerns arose regarding its pace on the softer tyre compounds through pre-season testing, with its struggles being particularly clear in Bahrain last weekend. Ferrari had a decent edge on the Supersoft and Soft compounds - yet on the Mediums, both Bottas and Hamilton were rapid.

Pirelli’s ‘double step’ in China between the Ultrasoft and Soft compounds prompted both Mercedes and Ferrari to complete Q2 on the harder tyre, ensuring they will be able to start on Softs. The Ultrasoft led to some quick lap times in Q3, including a new track record from Vettel, but most feared it would not hold up for more than a few laps in the race.

Starting on the Soft gives Mercedes the chance to go deeper into the race before making the switch to Mediums where it should be more comfortable. The team has pinned much of its hopes of slightly warmer weather on Sunday after struggling to get its tyres - particularly the Ultrasofts - up to temperature in qualifying due to the cool conditions.

“We are lacking grip, and you can fall out of the window by the tyres getting too hot or by the tyres being too cold,” Mercedes chief Toto Wolff said after the session.

“There’s two extremes like we had in Bahrain. I think this is what happened.”

Mercedes was able to get around it in Bahrain by running a different tyre strategy to Ferrari. The decision to one-stop and use Mediums took the paddock by surprise, yet it put the team within 0.7 seconds of an unlikely victory.

But there does not seem to be many ways to get to the finish in China with just one pit stop. The circuit is so tough on tyres that running a Soft-Soft-Medium strategy looks most likely. So long as Ferrari can keep hold of the front two positions at the start, it will be in a position to react to Mercedes’ strategy plays with a bit of a buffer.

Yet if things go the same way as they did in Bahrain, with at least one of the Mercedes drivers getting in amongst the Ferraris at the front, there will be a real race on. If the Soft tyres get in the right window, Mercedes will have a real shot at unleashing the pace of the W09 Hybrid we saw in Australia - and Vettel is well aware of the threat both Silver Arrows pose.

“It’s a track where you need to get in and find that sweet spot, and if you’re a little bit out then easily you drop a little bit of time,” Vettel said.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow that gap disappears and it will be a very tight race. Obviously I wouldn’t mind if it stays there, but I think it will be a tight race amongst the top three teams and a long, tough race.”

Opportunity knocks once again for Ferrari. Vettel has the chance to make it three wins from three - what would be his best ever start to a season, beating 2011 - despite not appearing to have the fastest car outright.

But if 2017 taught us anything, it is not to write Mercedes or, in particular, Lewis Hamilton off.


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