BAKU (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton returned to the front row of the Formula One starting grid on Saturday after a two-race absence and said it was good to be back.
“I hope you haven’t missed me too much,” the four-times world champion told the crowd after qualifying second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the fourth round of the season.
“Today was a much more reasonable car. There were still areas where we were lacking but it’s a work in progress I would say and to be that close to the Ferraris is definitely a positive.”
Hamilton put his Mercedes on pole position in Baku last season but the landscape has changed markedly since then, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel winning the first two races and taking the top grid slot in the last three.
Hamilton is nine points adrift of the German while Mercedes, champions for the past four years, have lost three successive races for the first time since the V6 turbo hybrid era started in 2014.
The Briton, whose winless streak extends back six races to last October, was off the podium in China two weekends ago even if he has racked up a record 28 successive points scoring finishes and counting.
Formula One’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, always adept at stirring up media interest, suggested the problem might be more with Hamilton than the car.
“He doesn’t seem to be the Lewis that he was before,” he told Sky Sports television.
“When you talk to him and see him act the way he acts generally. He’s not the racer he was,” added the 87-year-old billionaire.
Such talk met with short shrift from both driver and team boss Toto Wolff, however.
“We’ll see at the end of the year,” said Hamilton in a terse reply when asked directly whether he felt as good as he’s ever been.
Wolff was more forthcoming, dismissing the comments with a smile: “It’s Bernie... He comes in and throws a hand-grenade and it’s in the papers. It’s great,” said the Austrian.
“We haven’t collectively performed on the level we would have wanted to. There were three races we could have won and we didn’t. That’s a fact.
“I still see the fire and the desire to win very much burning in him,” added Wolff.
“Lewis is remarkably easy with these kind of things. I think all of us very much respect Bernie, but we have also learned to take the comments with a smile.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar