Lewis Hamilton has joked that he 'can almost see pole position now' after securing comfortably his highest starting spot of the 2009 Formula 1 season to-date in qualifying fifth for this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix - and that is a sure sign, the defending world champion contends, that McLaren-Mercedes is 'making improvements all the time'.

After missing the top ten cut in both Australia and Malaysia, Hamilton made the breakthrough to the Q3 shoot-out in China a week ago, but was unable to go any further than ninth place. In Sakhir, by contrast, the 24-year-old has looked a threat from the off, and after topping the times in FP1, lapping fourth-quickest in FP3 on Saturday morning and third and eighth-fastest respectively in the opening two stages of the qualifying hour, he took the fight to the 2009 pace-setters in Q3, with considerable panache.

"We have been pushing incredibly hard over the last couple of months and this is a result of all our hard work," the nine-time grand prix-winner underlined. "We are making improvements all the time and I'm very proud of what we've achieved - firstly, it was good to get into the top ten, and then it was even better to battle inside the top ten!

"We've got a similar pace to some of the guys in the top five, so as long as everything goes smoothly we should be able to get a top five finish tomorrow. I can almost see pole position now - and I'm really looking forward to getting there soon!"

Hamilton's team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, by contrast, only just missed out on Q3 by less than a tenth of a second six places lower in eleventh, after being hampered in FP3 by an electrical issue on his MP4-24 and perhaps mistakenly going out too early in Q2, leaving the Finn at the mercy of his competitors when the times really began to tumble as the clock ticked down and the chequered flag neared.

"I didn't have any major problems today," the 27-year-old confessed, "but obviously I wasn't as fast as I would have liked. We have to analyse what went wrong. Nevertheless, our competiveness has improved compared to the previous grands prix.

"We are lacking pace especially in the middle sector. However, the fact that I was less than one tenth of a second behind tenth position in Q2 shows that we have made some more progress. I am now looking forward to the race, where my target is to achieve a solid points result."

McLaren notched up seven points last time out in China courtesy of fifth place for Kovalainen and sixth for Hamilton - and if that was an indication that the Woking-based outfit is now finally on the comeback trail following a desultory start to proceedings in 2009 both on and off the track, then the multiple world champions' highly encouraging form under the desert sun practically confirmed it.

"After our top ten qualifying position in Shanghai last weekend, today's performance once again shows that we are continuing to make progress with the MP4-24," affirmed team principal Martin Whitmarsh. "Lewis' top five position is a fantastic achievement and, considering he began the first race of the season from 18th on the grid, a fantastic indicator of just how much progress the team has made.

"Of course, while our qualifying positions mark the team's best Saturday performance of the season, they were made without compromise to our race pace; both Lewis and Heikki are well-placed to pick up some more points for the team tomorrow."

"Looks like we are heading in the right direction," corroborated a similarly buoyed Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. "Lewis did a great job yesterday and today. The layout of the track is not bad for us, as our car is strong under braking and we feel that our KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) hybrid is helping here as well.

"A shame for Heikki that he missed Q3 by less than one tenth, finishing eleventh while Lewis was eighth - an incredibly close session, with 0.05 seconds covering fourth to eighth! It is extremely tight these days in Formula 1, but that is great for the spectators - they are what we are here for."

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