Lewis Hamilton plays down chances of fighting for wins early in the F1 season

SAKHIR, Bahrain -- Lewis Hamilton doubts he will be in the running for victories at the opening rounds of the new Formula One season after struggling for performance during preseason testing.

His Mercedes team, which has won the last eight constructors' championships, has not looked competitive during this week's three-day test in Bahrain, while rivals Ferrari and Red Bull have shown promising pace.

Testing lap times can often be misleading when trying to understand the true competitive picture, but Hamilton insists Mercedes' struggle is real.

"I'm sure everyone can figure it out, we're not the quickest at the moment," he said during a press conference on Saturday. "Ferrari looks to be the quickest and perhaps Red Bull, and then maybe us or McLaren.

"I don't know, but we're certainly not at the top."

When asked if he was concerned that the lack of performance would limit his ability to fight for this year's title, the seven-time world champion added: "Obviously it's a little bit too early to get into that, or have those kind of thoughts, but at the moment I don't think we'll be competing for wins.

"But there is potential within our car to get us there -- we've just got to learn to extract it and fix some of the problems. That's what we are working on and everyone is doing an incredible job back at the factory working as hard as they can, but we have some hurdles to overcome.

"Obviously next week we'll get a much better showing of our pace but I think people will be surprised maybe. People keep saying that we keep talking ourselves down but it's a bit different this year."

Last year, Mercedes appeared to struggle throughout the three days of pre-season testing in Bahrain only to win the opening race at the same circuit a week later. However, the problems in 2021 were different to those faced by the team under F1's new technical regulations, and Hamilton doubts a quick turnaround will be possible in time for next weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix.

"It feels a lot different," he added. "It's not as good, I don't think it's going to look as it did last year with the difficult session we had in testing and then switch over into the race.

"I think we have far bigger challenges this time and there not one-week turnarounds, they'll take a little bit longer. But from what I told, we have a considerable amount of pace to find."

The new Mercedes features a unique take on the 2022 technical regulations, with a sidepod configuration unlike any other car on the grid. Mercedes' simulation data from its factory suggests there is a lot of untapped performance in the package, but issues with the balance of the car has made it difficult to access its true potential.

Part of the problem stems from issues the team has faced while running the car at lower ride heights, which is crucial to maximising the performance of the car's underfloor aerodynamics. When the car runs low and bottoms out on bumps, it has a tendency to briefly stall the airflow under the car which momentarily strips it of a large proportion of its downforce. The sudden change in downforce acting on the car means it starts bouncing up and down on its suspension along the straights, which is referred to as porpoising.

"We're exploring a range of setup options to try and improve the bouncing -- we have some directions that are able to improve this but finding the right balance between the bouncing and performance is clearly the challenge," Mercedes' trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said on Friday. "We still have lots of work ahead of us but the car has been running reliably which has helped us get good mileage in and run our programme."