Lewis Hamilton admitted that he was 'delighted' to have finished fourth in the Bahrain Grand Prix - his best result of the 2009 Formula 1 campaign to-date - but forecast a rather gloomier prediction for McLaren-Mercedes in Barcelona in a fortnight's time.

Having qualified a season-highest of fifth, an excellent KERS-aided getaway when the lights went out carried Hamilton past both compatriot Jenson Button and the Red Bull Racing of Shanghai winner Sebastian Vettel into the first corner - and indeed briefly past pole-sitter Jarno Trulli into second later around the opening lap - but he would not remain there long. With Button on the march, the Brawn GP sliced down the inside of the defending F1 World Champion into turn one second time around, leaving the Stevenage-born ace to deal with fending off the attentions of Vettel behind.

That he did to absolute perfection, withstanding the pressure of a faster car in his mirrors all the way to his first pit-stop on lap 15, and he would rejoin ahead of early race leader Timo Glock, though he ceded position to Vettel after the German made his own stop four laps later.

A strong middle stint, however,, saw the nine-time grand prix-winner keep pace with the second-placed battle between Toyota star Trulli and Vettel, and whilst he would fall away somewhat in the final stages on the lesser-favoured 'prime' tyres, nonetheless fourth place at the chequered flag was a superb result, in a car that only two months ago languished the best part of three seconds away from the leading pace.

"I'm delighted with fourth," enthused the 24-year-old, who has now climbed the drivers' championship table to seventh position. "My start was quite good, but unfortunately I was not able to keep third place - Jenson was just so fast through the corners so he was on my tail all the time. The Toyotas, Red Bulls and Brawns were so fast in the high-speed corners that it was just impossible to keep up, but this is another encouraging step for the team.

"We just need to keep working on the car because we're not really fighting back quite yet - we are collecting points. The gap will be bigger when we go to Barcelona because it's a high-downforce circuit. We should challenge for the top ten there, but another top five will be harder."

The measure of Hamilton's performance in Sakhir was perhaps best evinced by that of the driver in the sister MP4-24, Heikki Kovalainen. Having begun the race eleventh, the Finn lost ground over the course of a fraught opening lap in the desert kingdom, and he would drop back further due to McLaren's decision to send him out on the medium-compound Bridgestone rubber for the first stint.

On a heavy fuel load, the 27-year-old fell down as far as 17th at one stage, and after suffering with a tyre vibration that caused his initial pit-stop to be moved forward somewhat and failing to get within half a second of his team-mate's fastest lap time throughout, he went on to cross the finish line a distant and subdued twelfth.

"My start was a disaster," Kovalainen rued said. "Obviously, to begin the race on the prime tyre was the wrong choice. The harder tyres didn't have the right grip and soon started to deteriorate. The then tyres started vibrating even though there wasn't a flat-spot.

"After my first pit-stop the car felt much better, but by then it was too late to improve dramatically. Anyway, the pace was not very good. We now need to go away and analyse why our performance was not good enough today. We'll be working even harder to improve it ahead of the next race in Barcelona."

That notwithstanding, the overall result for McLaren was yet another firm indication that the multiple world champions are now well-and-truly on the comeback trail. Now comfortable in fourth position in the constructors' title chase, the Woking-based outfit is making progress and improvements by the race - and team principal Martin Whitmarsh is adamant that now is absolutely no time to let-up.

"A great drive by Lewis today," remarked the Englishman. "He made no mistakes during the race and pushed aggressively. Without the pace to match the Toyotas, Brawns or Red Bulls, fourth place was a very strong result and it's even more pleasing that we are steadily moving closer to their pace. A podium was in our grasp today, but we didn't quite make it.

"With Heikki, we fuelled him long and took a risk starting on the prime tyre, but we had to stop earlier than anticipated and lost too much time among other cars attempting a similar strategy, so that was disappointing. Overall, this circuit possibly flattered us a little, but we've nonetheless made substantial progress over the past few weeks. Our competitors won't stand still, but we will keep improving until we get back to where we expect to be - at the front."

"This was a step forward, no doubt," agreed Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. "Likewise I think the nature of this racetrack at one of our home races here in Bahrain and Lewis' driving skills helped us as much to achieve this result as our KERS hybrid, which is worth nearly half a second per lap around here. As for Heikki, his race was basically over in the first lap traffic jam.

"Everybody in the team is well aware of the fact that we need to produce further dramatic improvements to the MP4-24 in order to come back to where we used to be. Congratulations to Brawn GP for the third win in their fourth race 'powered by Mercedes-Benz'. Again, our engine guys did everything to keep the customer satisfied, and that is a very good feeling for everybody involved at Mercedes-Benz HighPerformanceEngines in Brixworth as well as in Stuttgart. Well done!"

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