Having earlier in the weekend been nonplussed at best and downright critical at worst about the lack of noticeable effect of the aerodynamic modifications McLaren-Mercedes has brought to its underperforming MP4-24 for the Spanish Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton went and underlined his argument in struggling to just 14th spot on the starting grid in Barcelona.
Buoyed by the consistent progress its has made since its disastrous start to the new Formula 1 campaign in winter testing – culminating in the defending world champion's strong run to fourth place, less than 13 seconds shy of the final rostrum position, in the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir just under a fortnight ago – McLaren arrived in the Catalan capital hoping to take a further leap up the pecking order around a circuit that has in the past delivered the team three back-to-back one-two finishes. The outcome, though, was anything but.
A competitive seventh-quickest in FP3 on Saturday morning, Hamilton made his way safely through the opening phase of qualifying in tenth, but was unable to extract the pace he needed from his car in Q2, coming up almost three tenths of a second shy of making the grade for the top ten shoot-out and meaning he will consequently take the start of the race from back on the seventh row.
To compound McLaren's misery, team-mate Heikki Kovalainen – delayed by a hydraulics issue on the opening day that cost the Finn important track time – was nearly seven tenths away from Hamilton's best effort in Q1. That led to the 27-year-old exiting the fray at the very earliest possibility down in 18th position – and gave the Woking-based outfit the worst combined qualifying performance of any team bar Force India.
“We had a much better feeling on the softer tyre this morning,” reported Hamilton, “but it is still difficult to stop the car understeering through the longer corners like turns three and nine. Q1 wasn't a bad lap, but there was still too much understeer.
“We did the best we could today. My lap was not fantastic, but the car was not fast enough either – I didn't have the grip to go any faster. However, it will be quite a long and tough race for everyone tomorrow and we'll try and make up as many places as possible and hope to score some points. We'll learn from this, keep pushing and do better in the future.”
“This was the first time this year that I didn't reach Q2,” added an understandably frustrated Kovalainen. “Into the last sector, Nick [Heidfeld] was a little bit ahead of me but I don't think he lost me a lot of time. It's been quite a difficult weekend; I just couldn't find any grip today – that's why the lap time was too slow.”
Having already predicted back in Sakhir that the Circuit de Catalunya would not play in McLaren's favour, with its high-speed corners only serving to expose the MP4-24's lack of aerodynamic efficiency, team principal Martin Whitmarsh was phlegmatic about the result of the session – if remaining encouraged by the steps forward that have been taken since the car first took to the track back in mid-January, and positive that there is still much more to come.
“We knew in advance that this was going to be a particularly difficult circuit for us,” the Englishman reflected, “and today proved that. Let's not forget that only eight weeks ago we were more than 2.5 seconds off the pace – during qualifying today, Lewis was only three tenths off second place in Q1 and eight tenths off the front in Q2.