Having confessed to having 'raced his heart out' as he climbed his way up the order in the 2009 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne last weekend, reigning Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton has promised to do likewise in Sepang – as he bids to rebuild his battered reputation following a bruising past few days.
Much of the talking about Hamilton and McLaren-Mercedes since arriving in Malaysia has centred around the off-track scandal enveloping the Woking-based outfit, rather than the team's on-track performance. With the Stevenage-born ace admitting to having been 'misled' and instructed to 'withhold information' from FIA race stewards in Albert Park by long-time McLaren sporting director Dave Ryan [see separate story – click here
], rumours are circulating that a widening schism is developing between driver and team.
Nonetheless, the crisis did not prevent Hamilton from trying hard on the circuit in Kuala Lumpur as he always does, even if he was unable to haul his recalcitrant-if-improving MP4-24 into the Q3 shoot-out – the first time in his 36-race career in the top flight that he has failed to make the top ten in qualifying for two grands prix in succession.
“We qualified about where we expected to,” the 24-year-old mused of his twelfth spot on the grid, after battling handling woes throughout practice. “We don't yet have the pace to get into Q3, but the balance doesn't feel too bad – we're just unable to carry enough speed through the corners.
“We expect to see some improvements over the next two or three races. For tomorrow, I'm just going to race my heart out, do the best I can and try and score some points.”
Team-mate Heikki Kovalainen wound up a mere 19 thousandths of a second adrift of Hamilton at the close of play, but will start the race a row behind in 14th after demoted Red Bull Racing star Sebastian Vettel slotted in-between the two Silver Arrows as a result of his ten-place penalty.
The Finn had seen his FP3 running dramatically curtailed by tyre pressure woes, but showed well in Q1 to place a highly encouraging fifth before finding himself unable to rediscover that pace when he needed it most in Q2, thereby making it both cars on the sidelines before qualifying was over.
“We knew that getting into the top ten would be tough,” the 27-year-old confessed, “so my result was more-or-less what I expected. The gap to the cars in front is smaller than it was in Melbourne, so I'm confident that we're headed in the right direction, but we haven't yet found that extra bit of speed we need. The balance today wasn't completely to my liking, but I did my best and I'm looking forward to an enjoyable battle in the race tomorrow.”
As McLaren endeavours to salvage some credibility from what has been a nightmare weekend for the multiple world champions, team principal Martin Whitmarsh acknowledged that the only way to silence the critics is to deliver in terms of hard results – something he is positive the squad will be increasingly able to do over upcoming grands prix.