Defending F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton admitted that whilst he may only have been able to finish a lowly and dispiriting 16th in front of his adoring home fans in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone at the weekend, he had fun along the way - even if McLaren-Mercedes' rivals did 'beat the pants off' the Woking-based outfit again.

The aerodynamically-poor MP4-24 was always likely to suffer around the high-speed turns of the 'Home of British Motor Racing', and so it was to prove, with a back row starting spot in qualifying - the worst of Hamilton's fledgling career in the top flight, and the third time in succession in 2009 that the 24-year-old has failed to break out of the Q1 drop - and a feisty performance in the race that nonetheless was not even close to being able to haul him into the points as he grappled fruitlessly around for grip from lights out to chequered flag. At one stage, indeed, he even ran plum last, a dramatic fall from grace for the man who in the same race last year had produced one of the drives of his life to master the torrential conditions for a truly famous victory.

There were a brace of grassy moments along the way as well as spirited tussles with the BMW-Sauber of Robert Kubica and Renault of former team-mate Fernando Alonso, both of whom similarly triumphed in 2008. That the three finished respectively 13th (Kubica), 14th (Alonso) and 16th (Hamilton) only went to prove just how different things are twelve months on. The fans, though, the Stevenage-born ace confessed, had kept him going - and he rewarded them afterwards with a series of crowd-pleasing donuts.

"I was pushing all the way," the nine-time grand prix-winner underlined. "I was starting in 19th, so all I could do was try my best, and I gave it my all. Despite fighting for the lower positions, I was absolutely on the limit for the whole race. We knew it would be difficult, and I enjoyed my battle with Fernando, but we didn't have the pace to get into the points. I still enjoyed it, though, regardless of how well or bad we're doing.

"The most important thing for me this weekend was just to give something to the fans, and they were with me all the way. They were fantastic; this has been the best race in terms of the show-up and the crowd in Formula 1 for a long, long time. I think they all deserve a great pat on the back. They've honestly given me so much energy this year, and to see that regardless of how bad we're doing they still stand by me, I think that really just shows the true sportsmanship of all of our fans in Great Britain.

"They really gave me some consolation by cheering me on throughout the race. I would love to have given them a result to make them happy and my country proud, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us before that will be realistic. It was only when I was on my own that I could have a bit of fun, and I tried to show my appreciation on the formation lap. I had a little bit of fun and the team were moaning a little bit, but we live to fight another day."

It was indeed a tough race for McLaren, around a circuit where they had triumphed on no fewer than twelve previous occasions, and team principal Martin Whitmarsh ruefully acknowledged that there would be no quick fix to the multiple world champions' struggles in 2009 - but he also suggested that the Silverstone pain had been part of a strategy of long-term gain in 'stepping rearwards to go forwards'.

"This weekend has been a very difficult one for everyone at McLaren-Mercedes," recognised the Englishman. "No-one in our team likes not winning, and it goes without saying that we all remain utterly determined to return to our winning ways. That may not be a realistic prospect for this season - although significant improvements are in the pipeline - but the team is doing a huge amount of work in an effort to gain a full understanding of the performance issues our car is currently facing, with a view to developing next year's car as well as improving this year's car. Sometimes you have to go backwards before you can begin going forwards - and, painful as it was for all of us, this weekend was an example of that.

"There's never one issue - that's absolutely clear - but the dominant one I think you can see. In Monaco and where you have slow-speed circuits I think we can be quite competitive, but we're just killed in the high-speed corners. There's no great secret there; if you either haven't got the downforce or you've got some transient aerodynamic issue, then I think that's what we've got to fix. We don't have the grip; we don't have the downforce. We're behind in that regard, and we need to find that performance.

"I think this weekend, to some extent maybe we've been stepping rearwards to go forwards eventually - we've changed fundamentally the weight distribution of the car, and that was quite a big challenge for both the drivers, to learn how to drive a newly-balanced car during the course of the weekend. If you listen to them, they're not complaining about the balance; it's just straightforward grip that you need, especially around a high-speed circuit like this. Through Copse, if you've got drivers going through there flat and you're having to lift, you're giving away maybe 15km/h, so down through Becketts you're just losing too much time down the straights after those high-speed corners.

"We're used to being at the other end and so are Ferrari, and I think the new regulations have given all of us a good challenge. It's painful for us, as you can imagine, and it's been painful for Ferrari, though I think they're recovering better than we are at the moment. I think we've had a six-week flat-spot in our development process, and in this business if you're already struggling for competitiveness, then you fall behind.

"This time last year obviously there was a big difference; we were dominant, with a comfortable win here thanks to a fantastic drive from Lewis. There's just as much effort - not just from Lewis, but from the whole team - to come round in 15th or 16th place [this year]. That's very hard, but they're the facts. Whilst we were competing last year and developing the car all the way through to Brazil, our competitors were rightly concentrating on the new set of regulations - the largest set of rule changes in probably 20 years. They took that opportunity, and they're beating the pants off us now.

"It's difficult, but that's where it is, and we're an organisation that's used to being up at the front, so we've got to go back, do our homework, keep pushing and believe in our team and our organisation that we'll be up at the front as quickly as we can. We never give up, but we want rain, we want safety cars, we want luck! We're going to carry on trying to improve this car, but really unlike last year at this time of year, we're concentrating on a new car at the moment and we've got to regroup and make sure we've got a winning car next year."

Whitmarsh was equally full of praise for the mature manner and good grace with which Hamilton has accepted the current disheartening situation - one completely at-odds with that he has been accustomed to throughout his career, right from its very earliest days in karting.

"I think for Lewis, all the way through his career he's come in on a Sunday with the belief that he's got the equipment to win the race," the 51-year-old stated. "It's quite unusual for anyone in their career to do that, to arrive in F1 where the first two years are phenomenal, and then to suddenly have a season where frankly we haven't given him the equipment to go out and win. He's had to come to terms with that, and it's difficult.

"He's still a very young man, and I think he's dealt with it very well. He's a professional racing driver; you've only got to see the race at Silverstone to see that he's trying as hard as he can - as hard if not harder than when he was winning last year. I think he's learned a lot from it - I'm sure not always enjoyable lessons - but he'll come out of this tougher, and the next time he's got a competitive car I'm sure he'll appreciate it more."

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