Lewis Hamilton was in buoyant spirits after winding up second-quickest in opening practice for this weekend's Monaco Grand Prix - and insists he is confident of being able to 'shoot for the top five' in qualifying on Saturday.

Having finished a close if unhappy runner-up to then McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Fernando Alonso on his maiden Formula 1 appearance in the glamorous Principality back in 2007, last year Hamilton made amends by charging to a superb victory - and one he had to work hard for along the way following an early error in tricky conditions.

There were no such errors in practice twelve months on, as the Stevenage-born ace reminded everybody in the paddock just why he is the defending F1 World Champion to lap third-fastest in the morning running and improve by more than two seconds to second place in the afternoon behind good friend and former karting sparring partner Nico Rosberg, getting through more than 60 laps in the process. Despite McLaren's trying start to the 2009 campaign, a similar result in qualifying, he hinted, may not be entirely out of the question.

"Driving around Monaco is a spectacular sensation," the 24-year-old enthused. "You can't compare it to any other circuit. You get such a huge buzz here. I love this place - it reminds me how much I love this sport, why I love racing and why I love Formula 1.

"From today's performance, I think Q3 is definitely possible on Saturday. I'm optimistic about shooting for the top five - I hope we can get there."

Team-mate Heikki Kovalainen was similarly up at the sharp end of proceedings throughout the first day, backing Hamilton ably up in fourth early on - despite becoming one of many drivers to take a quick run up the Ste Devote escape road - and ending proceedings a competitive seventh, a sure tonic after the Finn has generally found himself on the receiving end of a run of ill-fortune thus far in 2009.

"Lots of traffic today," reported the 28-year-old after a marathon 75 laps inside the cockpit, "but that's normal for Monaco. Today's running tells us we'll be more competitive here. The team has worked very well and my car was in good shape straightaway this morning.

"The most important thing is that we've made consistent improvements - we've made good progress on the set-up and I've been dialling myself further into the car and the track on each run. While our car seems to behave well around here, there's still some work to do - we won't be able to do miracles over the weekend."

Nonetheless, second and seventh positions mark a significant improvement on McLaren's Barcelona form a fortnight ago, when the Circuit de Catalunya's many high-speed corners highlighted the MP4-24 aerodynamic deficiencies and saw a helpless Hamilton finish outside the points in ninth place. The Woking-based outfit's team principal Martin Whitmarsh is confident it will be a different story around the narrow, tortuous streets of the Principality - where it has triumphed on a record 15 previous occasions.

"The whole team loves the thrill and tension of the Monaco weekend," the Englishman confessed, "and today's performance has left us feeling encouraged that we will have another successful weekend in the principality. Lewis and Heikki have really dived into the challenge, both producing some excellent times and, most importantly, helping to refine our technical package ahead of Saturday's crucial qualifying session and the race itself. We go into Saturday feeling extremely positive about getting a strong result from both drivers."

"A good first day on this challenging track which saw McLaren-Mercedes winning on the last two occasions," added Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. "It is too early to know where we will be in qualifying compared to our competitors, but Lewis and Heikki should hopefully be in better shape than at previous races.

"The car so far just looks better on this track, and our mechanical and aerodynamic improvements seem to help here around as well as our KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) hybrid. Having said that, I do not see us in the role of the favourites like in previous years when we won six grands prix out of eleven since McLaren-Mercedes' maiden win in 1998."


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