Lewis Hamilton has won a record 103 Formula One grands prix but Mercedes’s seven-times world champion was all smiles in Bahrain on Sunday after third place exceeded his expectations.
“This is really the best result we could have got,” said the Briton after a season-opening race that looked sure to be a struggle after he started fifth behind the Ferraris and Red Bulls.
The retirement of Red Bull’s world champion Max Verstappen and team mate Sergio Perez provided a surprise 183rd career podium for Hamilton behind the Ferrari one-two of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
Champions Mercedes have started the sport’s new era on the back foot, Hamilton and team mate George Russell wrestling with a bouncing car and warning fans that rivals were clearly quicker.
“I woke up this morning hoping — super, super hoping — that we would have a chance to fight, have a car that’s better than we think or something like that but we did struggle in the race,” said Hamilton.
The 37-year-old had qualified some seven-tenths of a second off Leclerc’s pole time and looked set to stay fifth until the Red Bull pair were removed from the reckoning.
“Whilst we’re currently not necessarily performance-wise fighting with these guys, this is not damage limitations but just a really, really great result,” said Hamilton, winner of the previous three Bahrain Grands Prix.
“Of course we were fortunate but ultimately we’ve done a better job, we have better reliability.”
Team boss Toto Wolff said putting both drivers on hard tires had been a wrong move like putting a “hand down the toilet” but the end result was “fantastic” for a team chasing a ninth successive constructors’ championship.
“If we would have come in last year third and fourth it would have been very frustrating but this year I think we are punching above our weight class,” said the Austrian.