George Russell conceded that Mercedes tried finding a “silver bullet” with its setup on the W14 around Suzuka, which ultimately made the car slower.
Russell wound up eighth in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix, with just one set of fresh soft tyres at his disposal in the top-10 shootout in Q3.
The British driver’s time was 1.342s off Max Verstappen’s pole position effort, having been a similar distance away in Saturday morning’s final practice session.
However, Russell had only been 0.640s away from the best time during FP2 on Friday, leaving him to rue taking a “step backwards” overnight.
“I think there’s a sweet spot when it comes to circuits like this which is very difficult to find that when you’re not there, you can be quite far off the pace,” Russell said.
“We were much closer yesterday to the rest of the pack than we were today. So [we have] definitely taken a step backwards.”
In a bid to close the gap to the competition from Friday and move up the order during Saturday’s sessions, Mercedes and Russell found themselves going in the opposite direction.
“We’ve made some changes,” he added. “You’re trying to find everything possible, you try whatever you can if there’s almost a silver bullet.
“But often in this sport, there’s never any magic you can do with the set-up. We probably made the car a bit slower trying to find a lap time that just wasn’t there.”
A week ago Russell was challenging for victory in Singapore and now finds himself on the fourth row of the grid heading into tomorrow’s Japanese GP.
He expects “the order to stay the same,” meaning he will likely be resigned to the lower-scoring positions.
Meanwhile, after a brief blip at Singapore, Verstappen and Red Bull blitzed the opposition to reassert their collective dominance in Formula 1.
If the likes of Mercedes and Russell wish to join Verstappen and Red Bull at the front of the grid next year, they will need to make rapid progress in car development over the winter.
“I think we can preempt very well where we can be quick and slow between now and the end of the season,” Russell assessed.
But the challenge after that will be to know that Mercedes can be quick everywhere and shake off the inconsistencies of the past 18 months.