Lewis Hamilton says he was on a “knife edge with the rear end” of his Mercedes car throughout qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix.
The seven-time champion struggled immensely on Friday, failing to appear inside the top 10 in either practice session.
Despite appearing to be under pressure again in the early stages of qualifying, Hamilton wound up seventh in Q3, three-tenths ahead of team-mate George Russell.
Hamilton has credited overnight changes to his Saturday turnaround but asserts Mercedes continues to lack the rear downforce required to challenge the cars ahead, having ended up a second down on Max Verstappen’s pole position time.
“Yesterday [the car] was a nightmare, not the kind of balance you want on a track like this,” he said.
“But we did some great work overnight, the car was feeling much nicer to drive today. As good a balance as we could possibly get, it’s just massively down on rear downforce, so we can’t carry anywhere near the speeds as these guys carry through that first sector.”
Hamilton had encountered trouble in qualifying since the summer break, with Russell retaining the upper hand on low fuel at the three previous rounds before this one.
The Briton believes he lost the opportunity to win last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix when he qualified four-tenths and three positions behind his team-mate.
Having been critical of his own qualifying form in the week building up to Japan, Hamilton admits he was “much, much happier” with his performance at Suzuka.
“Yesterday it started looking like it was not gonna be so great, but I think the set-up was the right direction and then from P3 to qualifying I made another set-up change and I was really happy with that,” he continued.
“But just really hard to pull any more out of it, I’m already on a knife edge with the rear end the whole way through the lap, all the way through.”
Expanding on Mercedes’ current issues, Hamilton acknowledged that the W14 is a “very peaky car” that is temperamental in its behaviour from circuit to circuit.
“When we talk about knife edge it’s literally like trying to balance a knife on this tip, and this is that car, it’s like impossible,” he explained.
“It is never perfectly balanced, it’s one way or the other, and you either oversteer or massively understeer, you can never get in the middle, but you try and get it as close as you can to the middle, but it’s very, very hard to do each weekend.
“But when I do get it into a decent place this is where I qualify.”
Hamilton will line up directly behind Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, with the Italian side’s two cars split by the Red Bull of Sergio Perez.
Pressed on whether it’s possible to battle the Ferraris on Sunday, Hamilton replied: “Well, they had an upgrade this weekend, so they are definitely a little bit ahead of us.
“And it’s not an easy track to overtake, but I’m still going to give it everything and hope that I can give them a run for their money tomorrow.
Amid Red Bull’s dominance continuing after its surprise slump in Singapore, Hamilton insists Mercedes must halve its current deficit to the Austrian outfit over the winter.
“I think we as a team, when we go back and do the debrief now… a second gap is huge and it’s real,” he lamented. “To be two years in and still be a second down compared to the Red Bulls… we need to make sure we really do the job over the winter to get at least half that gap before next year.”