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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Lewis Hamilton's Bahrain Grand Prix hopes hit by five-place grid penalty

Defending world champion bumped down order following unscheduled gearbox change on his Mercedes-GP

Lewis Hamilton will start only sixth even if he manages to post the quickest time in qualifying on Saturday. Mark Thompson / Getty Images
Lewis Hamilton will start only sixth even if he manages to post the quickest time in qualifying on Saturday. Mark Thompson / Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton has been dealt a huge blow in his bid to win the Bahrain Grand Prix after being hit with a five-place grid penalty.

The defending world champion was attempting to get his title charge back on track this weekend after losing out to Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel at the season opener in Australia a fortnight ago.

But he will now be bumped down the order following an unscheduled gearbox change on his Mercedes-GP.

It means Hamilton will start only sixth even if he manages to post the quickest time in qualifying on Saturday.

Hamilton's Mercedes team revealed that the British driver suffered a hydraulics leak at the curtain raiser in Melbourne, adding that he was even fortunate to finish the race.

Hamilton had been poised to win at Albert Park only for a timing error on the Mercedes pit wall during a virtual safety car period to gift-wrap the victory to his rival Sebastian Vettel.

Even before news broke of Hamilton's penalty here late into the Bahrain night, the 33-year-old Englishman already appeared to be playing catch-up.

Hamilton was only fifth and fourth respectively in Friday's two practice sessions with Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen setting the overall pace. Vettel was second for Ferrari with the Italian team seeming to hold the advantage over Mercedes in the hotter temperatures.

Speaking before his grid penalty was revealed, Hamilton said: "It looks very close between all the teams and we definitely have got some work to do to try and see if we can eke out to be ahead of the others.

"Practice has shown that it's incredibly close between the three teams. It will be a tough weekend."

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Hamilton's teammate Valtteri Bottas will also take on a new gearbox, but - under the sport's rules - avoids a penalty as he is permitted a free change after his qualifying crash in Australia.

Raikkonen and Vettel finished half-a-second clear of their Mercedes rivals in practice, and Vettel, while pleased with his team's progress, expressed caution over Friday's times.

"It looked as though we were a bit quicker than the rest but at this point I wouldn't draw any conclusions," Vettel said.

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo was fastest in the opening running here in the desert, but the Australian had to make do with sixth under the lights of the Sakhir circuit in the second session.

Max Verstappen, who missed the entirety of the first 90-minute session with a power problem, returned to set the fifth-best time, albeit nearly one second slower than Raikkonen.

Outside of the sport's top-three teams, Nico Hulkenberg was seventh in second practice for Renault ahead of Toro Rosso's Pierre Gasly.

Despite their move to Renault engines, McLaren remain off the pace of the front-runners with Fernando Alonso ninth, some 1.4 seconds off Raikkonen's lap.