Lewis Hamilton admitted to producing some 'pretty hardcore laps' and pushing 'almost beyond the limit' as he delivered McLaren-Mercedes its first top ten qualifying performance of the 2009 Formula 1 World Championship campaign ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai – and he argued afterwards that the result marks 'the start of the road to recovery'.
Both the reigning F1 World Champion and his team have endured a torrid start to the year, embroiled in the Melbourne 'lies' scandal with the threat of further sanctions still hanging over their heads and desperately trying to improve the thus far recalcitrant and aerodynamically poor MP4-24.
The squad does, however, appear to have turned something of a corner this weekend, with Hamilton surprisingly showing the way in FP1 and winding up an impressive third-quickest in FP3 on Saturday morning before going on to feature right up at the sharp end of proceedings throughout qualifying as well, at one stage even topping the timing screens and placing fourth in Q1, sixth in Q2 and ninth at the close of the session in Q3.
“They were pretty hardcore laps!” the 24-year-old revealed of his stellar effort. “They were almost beyond the limit. Step-by-step, we are moving forward, and thanks to all the guys back at the factory for doing such a fantastic job and for churning away on all the new parts – every little bit helps us catch the leaders. There's still a long way to go, but this definitely feels like the start of the road to recovery.”
Those sentiments were corroborated by team-mate Heikki Kovalainen in the sister Silver Arrow, who despite similarly showing well in practice – fourth-quickest in FP1 and seventh in FP3 – wound up almost a second away from Hamilton in Q1. He paid the price in Q2 when traffic cost him the chance to also progress on to the top ten shoot-out in causing him to abandon his final effort, but the Finn – yet to complete a racing lap in 2009 following a brace of early retirements from the fray in the opening two outings in Melbourne and Sepang – professed himself pleased with handling and grip.
“We've really improved our car this weekend,” the 27-year-old underlined. “It was unfortunate we couldn't go any faster in Q2, but I am glad for the team that Lewis made it into Q3. While twelfth position doesn't truly reflect my pace, it's clear that we're heading in the right direction. With the right strategy and some better luck in the opening laps, I'll be aiming for my first points of the year tomorrow.”
The overall balance of the qualifying session, indeed, was a positive one for McLaren, and Martin Whitmarsh recognised that the outcome was 'an encouraging and significant step for the whole team'. The next aim, the Woking-based concern's team principal affirmed, is to come away from the weekend with a double points finish.
“Lewis' ninth place marks the first time this season that we have made it into Q3,” the Englishman stated, “and also demonstrates the effort we are putting in back at the McLaren Technology Centre to improve the MP4-24. Admittedly, there is still a long way to go – and we will not be happy until we are back at the front – but this is an encouraging and significant step for the whole team.
“Lewis' laps, particularly in Q1 and Q2, were absolutely tremendous and worthy of a great champion. While Heikki was unable to improve on twelfth, he and his engineers did a fantastic job together to set the car up. As a result, we go into tomorrow's race seriously optimistic of getting both cars into the points.”