Lewis Hamilton brought back 'good memories' to his embattled McLaren-Mercedes team in unexpectedly topping the timesheets in FP1 ahead of this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix - and even if he does not expect to reproduce a similar showing in qualifying, the defending Formula 1 World Champion is nevertheless optimistic that the squad has 'definitely made a step forward' in Shanghai.

Hamilton triumphed in the Chinese Grand Prix last year en route to his maiden drivers' crown in the top flight at only his second attempt, but he has endured a torrid start to his third season of competition in 2009 - dogged by poor performance from the aerodynamically-challenged MP4-24 and the Melbourne 'lies' controversy into which the Woking-based outfit and its star driver have plunged in recent weeks.

The 24-year-old's performance to steal the top spot in the weekend's opening practice session, therefore - leading compatriot and current world championship pace-setter Jenson Button in a British one-two - was just the tonic that he and his team needed, even if he was unable to maintain that form later on as he slipped back to a perhaps more representative 13th position at the close of proceedings.

"The car instantly felt a bit better," stated the nine-time grand prix-winner of the benefits of the new six-plane front wing brought to China, whilst also using his time to compare the different tyre compounds supplied by Bridgestone. "I can definitely feel more stability and downforce from the front.

"My first run on the option tyres felt quite consistent. The drop-off definitely feels manageable. This was a good day, although we still need to work on the MP4-24's medium and high-speed balance.

"We've definitely made a step forward for this race, though. The car feels much stronger through the corners, and I think we've got a very positive baseline for the rest of the weekend."

Team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, for his part, backed Hamilton up strongly in fourth place in FP1 - just over three tenths of a second adrift - as the Finn similarly conducted tyre and front wing comparisons, stymied only by a persistent issue with the hydraulic flap system which compromised his consistency as he wound up ninth at the close, four spots ahead of the sister Silver Arrow.

"I'm very impressed by the performance upgrades for this race," enthused the 27-year-old, echoing Hamilton's positive summary. "We still need to do more work to find the best balance, but our car definitely feels more stable here."

As McLaren bids to divert the focus back onto its on-track performance rather than its off-track woes, it was undoubtedly a much better day than of late - the trick now, acknowledges team principal Martin Whitmarsh, is to keep that improved form going over the remainder of the meeting.

"The team, both at the track and back in the factory, has done a fantastic job to get these bodywork upgrades to Shanghai," underlined the Englishman, "and initial analysis would suggest that they have contributed to a slight uplift in our overall competitiveness.

"We are still working on the MP4-24's overall balance, but nonetheless we concluded some productive tyre evaluation work. Heikki's day was compromised by a hydraulic system problem which failed to adjust his front wing flaps correctly, a fault that distracted both him and his engineers from their regular programme."

"Seeing Lewis in P1 after this morning's session brought back some good memories," added Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug, "although we are aware that the team's package is not yet competitive. Still, the improvements we have made to the car - which are particularly relentless at the moment - should see us making another encouraging step forward.

"Sunday's race will be greatly influenced by the performance over a stint of the Bridgestone super-soft [tyres], but our consistency on both tyres looks quite okay at this early stage of the weekend."

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