Lewis Hamilton admitted he is struggling with his Mercedes and should not be losing to team-mate George Russell.
As Charles Leclerc bounced back from a spin to see off championship rival Max Verstappen and claim pole position for Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix, Hamilton qualified sixth. Russell finished two places ahead in fourth.
Hamilton and Russell are three apiece in qualifying this season, but the younger Mercedes man has beaten Hamilton in four of the five grands prix staged so far.
Hamilton is 23 points behind his team-mate, and 68 points adrift of championship leader Leclerc.
The Silver Arrows have brought a number of upgrades to Barcelona’s scorching Circuit de Catalunya – including a revised floor and new front wing – and the early signs are encouraging for the team which has won the last eight constructors’ championships.
Mercedes were a second back in Miami, but Russell finished six tenths slower than Leclerc with Hamilton seven tenths adrift.
Hamilton has already written off his chances of an eighth title this season, but do Mercedes’s improvements provide him with hope he could yet find himself in the championship mix?
“I am not really putting my mind to that because I am still way off,” said the 37-year-old.
“My team-mate is fourth so that means I should be at least third or fourth, and I am sixth. I am still struggling with the car and qualifying wasn’t great for me.
“I don’t know how to get around that. I don’t know what I am going to do, but I will just continue to work hard and try to figure it out.”
Hamilton has so often reigned in Spain, taking four of the last five poles as well as six overall wins – a record he shares with Michael Schumacher – but he has played second fiddle to Russell this weekend.
"This car just doesn't talk to Lewis in the way that he likes a car to talk to him," said respected pundit Martin Brundle on commentary duty for Sky Sports.
“We have had years of Lewis being absolutely precise everywhere and he is fighting, he doesn’t know what the car is going to do next.
“Lewis is having to hustle, and that is not how we are used to him driving a Mercedes. George seems to be able to be more precise.”
Russell lucked-in with safety cars at the races in Melbourne and Miami to finish ahead of Hamilton.
But the 24-year-old, in his first season alongside the seven-time world champion, is proving to be an able match, and then some.
Is he over-delivering by getting the better of the sport’s most decorated star?
“No not really,” said Russell. “I just focus on myself and try to do the best job possible and where that leaves me I’ll review from there.
“But obviously I believe in myself, I’ve still got a lot to improve. I don’t feel like I’m truly optimising the package and compared to Lewis I’ve definitely got room to improve in a number of aspects.
“I guess it gives me excitement to see what I can deliver a little bit later on in the season.”