Lewis Hamilton has apologised to McLaren-Mercedes 'for wasting their time' after the reigning Formula 1 World Champion and defending Monaco Grand Prix race-winner crashed out of first part of qualifying in the Principality - in a session in which he could arguably even have stolen pole position.

Though the British star found himself lapped on his way to a lowly and evidently frustrated ninth place in the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona a fortnight ago - around a circuit that incontrovertibly highlighted the inherent aerodynamic weaknesses of McLaren's underperforming MP4-24 for all to see - expectations for Monaco were considerably higher, with its narrow, tortuous streets far more suited to the car's characteristics.

Hamilton proved as much in lapping right up at the sharp end of proceedings and inside the top three throughout Thursday practice, and with the smile fixed firmly back on his face again, a spring in his step and enthusiasm in his voice, the 24-year-old headed into qualifying aiming for a top five grid slot - at the very least.

He was lying seventh-quickest and had just set the fastest first sector time of anybody with eight minutes remaining in Q1 when he locked up on the way into Mirabeau, causing the back end of his car to step out and hit the barrier going through the corner, breaking his rear suspension in the process and instantly bringing out the red flags.

The Stevenage-born ace's first mistake of the weekend, it was the worst possible time for it to have been committed - and the man who has never previously finished lower than second in two previous F1 appearances in Monte Carlo will consequently be forced to begin the grand prix from all the way down on the eighth row of the starting grid on Sunday.

"I don't know what I was thinking," he rued afterwards, visibly crestfallen at his uncharacteristic error. "I made a mistake. I just braked too late - it's unfortunate, but these things happen. It's not been a good day; I had been going well all weekend and had the possibility of being on the front row. We'd made some very positive changes since Thursday, the track was grippier and cleaner and our car's traction felt very good.

"It's a shame for the team, because they have done such a fantastic job all weekend and the car has felt really strong - as Heikki's grid position shows. I apologise to them for wasting their time. I'll just do my best to try and recover from it. Starting 16th is frustrating, but I'll drive my heart out tomorrow and see what happens.

"It's been tough, but you learn from these mistakes. They're bound to happen; it's unfortunate that it happened in the first part of qualifying, but this is what makes you stronger. I will [fight], but my race weekend for a win is for sure over."

Though team-mate Heikki Kovalainen did, for his part, make the top ten - for the first time this year - the Finn too did not live up to expectations, and after setting the third-quickest lap time in FP3 on Saturday morning and the second-fastest time on low fuel in Q2, when it mattered most in the Q3 shoot-out he could do no better than seventh - though he is suspected of carrying more fuel than some of his immediate rivals for race day.

"The car definitely feels calmer and more stable over the bumps," reported the 27-year-old. "It's a bit easier to control and I've felt really comfortable with it throughout the whole weekend. Obviously, we wanted to be on pole but didn't manage that - let's see how the race unfolds and where we'll be after the first stops.

"Lewis was very unfortunate this afternoon - we are always at the limit around here, and a little slip-up can put you into the barriers. I touched the guardrails three times during qualifying, and I'm lucky that it didn't have any negative consequences."

As McLaren bids to fight back from a torrid start to the 2009 season in a race in which the multiple world champions have in the past triumphed on a record 15 occasions, the qualifying outcome was undeniably frustrating - especially around a track upon which it is nigh-on impossible to overtake. Nonetheless, the Woking-based outfit's team principal Martin Whitmarsh was adamant that there were many reasons for encouragement in the performance.

"Heikki has driven with increasing commitment all weekend," underlined the Englishman. "Two very strong laps in Q1 and Q2 showed that he was capable of taking the fight to the leaders, and we are confident that his strategy for tomorrow will push him even closer to the front. Lewis' accident was disappointing - he knows he made a mistake - but we all know he will not give up. That's his nature, and as a result I feel sure he will approach tomorrow's race with undiminished commitment."

"The speed was there to be among the quickest," agreed Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug, "so it's a shame what happened to Lewis after he had been among the fastest during all previous practice sessions, but such contact with the guardrails can easily happen in Monaco. Heikki was good, put in a solid performance and has a good strategy. Monaco has its own rules, so we still can look good tomorrow despite starting seventh and 16th."


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