Toto Wolff admits Mercedes are in ‘no man’s land’ and claims the season is already over… while Lewis Hamilton will be thinking his Ferrari move can’t come soon enough

It’s the hope that kills you. Only a few days ago Lewis Hamilton was able to muster an expression which had the vaguest semblance of a smile after assessing that his Mercedes was the best it felt for three years.

On Sunday, as his misfiring Merc toiled around Suzuka, that optimism quickly drained from him. That smile (if it was one), you would imagine, was wiped from his face at an even quicker rate.

The 39-year-old was not getting carried away when he made that assessment after practice on Thursday. Hamilton made it abundantly clear that he still knew the limitations of his car. Let’s not forget, two weeks ago Hamilton said this was a car that ‘messes with the mind’.

It’s one that seems to throw up a new challenge around every corner and one that bamboozles even the hi-tech equipment and army of engineers back at their Brackley base. And an old-school, high-octane circuit like this one painfully exposes the shortcomings of a man’s machine.

That’s exactly what it did to Hamilton, who held on to his place inside the top 10, finishing ninth, to tick his points tally for the season over into double figures. ‘I think I picked up a bit of damage at the beginning with Charles (Leclerc), he came around the outside,’ said Hamilton.

Toto Wolff claimed the season is already over for Mercedes after another difficult outing at the Japan GP

Toto Wolff claimed the season is already over for Mercedes after another difficult outing at the Japan GP

Lewis Hamilton (above) finished ninth at Suzuka as Mercedes' struggles continued

Lewis Hamilton (above) finished ninth at Suzuka as Mercedes’ struggles continued

Hamilton previously believed his Mercedes car was the best it had been in years before the GP got underway

Hamilton previously believed his Mercedes car was the best it had been in years before the GP got underway

‘I had huge understeer for the first stint. I couldn’t turn the car through any of the corners. ‘The hard tyre was pretty bad. The medium tyre was much better, so yeah, in hindsight it does looks like we should have had two medium tyres. But in general the car was pretty bad.’

That assessment will cause yet more sleepless nights for the Silver Arrows’ team principal Toto Wolff. He cancelled a pre-agreed break from the relentless travel of this 24-race global extravaganza to be on the ground, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his team in their hour of need.

But the dark clouds continue to hover over the Mercedes chief’s head after he watched Max Verstappen romp to victory in Japan. ‘No one is going to catch Max this season, his driving and the car are just spectacular,’ said the Austrian, who saw Hamilton’s teammate, George Russell, profit from a late mistake by McLaren’s Oscar Piastri to claim seventh place.

‘Basically this season now is best of the rest. That is the fight that is on, hopefully we catch up to the McLaren and then the Ferraris and fight for P2 (second). This is what it is this year.

‘If your expectation is to eventually race for wins and championships, then you can say we are in a bit of a no man’s land.’

There is no doubting where Verstappen stands, though. That is at the top of the tree once more after a brake failure forced him to retire early and brought a bitter end to his nine-race winning streak in Australia two weeks ago.

For anyone wondering whether his failure to win in Melbourne was anything other than a temporary aberration then here was your answer, delivered with the Dutchman’s typically emphatic flair. It may not have been quite as resounding as the victory that he recorded when the Japanese Grand Prix was last held just over six months ago.

But a 12-second gap between Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez in second was some way to laugh in the face of those who will have spent the past fortnight praying those reliability issues would rear their head again here. Instead, it was a third one-two finish of the season for the peerless Red Bulls, sending an ominous message, yet again, to the rest of the grid.

Hamilton labelled his car's performance as 'pretty bad' after the race

Hamilton labelled his car’s performance as ‘pretty bad’ after the race

Team boss Christian Horner was less willing to concur with Wolff’s assessment that this championship is already done and dusted after only four races. One would suggest he did so while wearing his best poker face.

‘I’ve learned not to listen too much to what Toto has said over the years,’ quipped Horner. ‘It’s very early to write off your year, there are still 20 races to go. The capacity he (Verstappen) has is very impressive. The form that he had last year has carried through.

‘The way he managed to extend the tyre length here was very impressive. We saw that on the first stint, on the second he did a very good job as well. He’s got a very wise head on still pretty young shoulders.’

Even a brief and unexpected interlude in the form of a red flag on the opening lap — which came after Daniel Ricciardo and Alex Albon had made a mess of the tyre wall heading into turn 3 — failed to knock the peerless Verstappen off his stride.

The charge from the rest of the pack was led by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who fought his way past team-mate Leclerc to claim third place, another impressive outing from the Spaniard after the appendix-less driver pulled off a medical marvel to claim victory in Australia two weeks ago.

Though this was another defeat for Leclerc against Sainz, who will lose his seat with the Italian team to Hamilton for next season, it was an encouraging day for the Monegasque driver who fought his way up from starting down in eighth to finish a commendable fourth.

For Hamilton, a weekend that started with so much promise ultimately ended with a painfully familiar ending as Red Bull and Ferrari shared the podium

For Hamilton, a weekend that started with so much promise ultimately ended with a painfully familiar ending as Red Bull and Ferrari shared the podium

Hamilton's final season at Mercedes isn't going to plan ahead of him preparing to join Ferrari next year

Hamilton’s final season at Mercedes isn’t going to plan ahead of him preparing to join Ferrari next year

He must rectify his sluggishness in qualifying to give himself the best chance of landing any kind of blow on either of the Red Bull pair. Several teams, including Mercedes, used the early red flag-induced break to tinker with their strategies. Hamilton was moved on to hard tyres and shifted to a one-stop race.

Not long after and the man who has won around this circuit on five occasions — the last time in 2018 — was requesting that his team altered that plan as he slipped further and further down the field. Such is the extent to which Hamilton finds his hands tied by his car that he struggled to even be sure if a change of strategy would have made a difference to the outcome of his race.

‘Nothing, I don’t think,’ said the despondent Englishman when quizzed over what he could have gained on a different strategy. ‘I don’t know what the different strategy would have been, whether it was staying on the medium to start with, but we still had two really terrible hard tyres to run through, so a real challenge today.’

For Hamilton, a weekend that started with so much promise ultimately ended with a painfully familiar ending.

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