Lewis Hamilton carried the air of a man resigned to his fate as he effectively wrote off his chances of successfully defending his hard-fought Formula 1 Drivers' World Championship crown this year – after a car that 'got slower and slower' consigned the British star to just 16th position on the starting grid for this weekend's Turkish Grand Prix.
McLaren-Mercedes arrived in Istanbul not expecting much from a track that – like the Circuit de Catalunya, where Hamilton finished a lapped ninth – was always likely to expose the underperforming MP4-24's inherent aerodynamic weaknesses. Encouraging form in Friday practice – with the Stevenage-born ace lapping second-quickest in FP1 and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen closing out the day at the top of the order – had, however, hinted at a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. In qualifying, that light was rapidly extinguished.
Visibly grappling around for rear-end grip through the high-speed corners of the undulating, anti-clockwise Istanbul Park Circuit close to the Bosphorous, Hamilton was unable to escape Q1 – for only the second time in his fledgling career at the highest level, but also, perhaps rather more tellingly, equally for the second time in swift succession in 2009 following his Monaco lapse a fortnight ago. It is, he acknowledged, fast degenerating into the season from hell.
“Welcome to my world!” the 24-year-old quipped, when asked as to what had gone wrong. “The car has just got slower and slower throughout the weekend. As the track has got hotter, more and more grip has gone down and people have got faster as we've got slower. Really I pushed as hard as I could, but I just didn't have any grip.”
“It looked great yesterday; our pace actually looked really good. This morning [the times] didn't look fantastic, but the car felt great – it was very well-balanced at the front, though we still had to work to get the rear working properly. We don't know where everyone else found the time [in qualifying], but we did anticipate this weekend would be a bit like Barcelona, so there you go.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh had suggested prior to the session that improvements scheduled to come on-song in the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim next month should perhaps be fast-tracked to appear in time for Hamilton's home outing at Silverstone in two weeks' time – but the nine-time grand prix-winner was not so sure that was the right policy to be adopting.
“I don't think we should rush into making too many changes to the car for the forthcoming races,” he urged. “I think we should just take our time, because it's not like it's going to make a huge difference – it's not like we're going to be able to gain back 60 points. It's better that we take our time to really try and refine things and really find where the problem is.
“The team are doing a fantastic job; really they have been working flat-out. The guys in the garage are working day and night with the same drive and determination as we've all always had. This is going to be a challenging year for us clearly, but I have no doubts that next year we'll bounce back.”
Adding to McLaren's 'challenge' for race day, Kovalainen could manage no better than 14th in the final reckoning, similarly afflicted by wheel-locking and rear-end stability issues as the Finn wound up more than seven tenths of a second shy of making the Q3 cut at the scene of his maiden front row starting position in the top flight this time twelve months ago. What a difference, indeed, a year makes...