Lewis Hamilton was in buoyant spirits after ending the opening day of practice for this weekend's German Grand Prix at the N?rburgring comfortably atop the timesheets - pointing to genuine signs of 'progress' at McLaren-Mercedes as he now eyes a top ten qualifying performance on Saturday and points on Sunday.

A low-key 13th following just a brace of runs in a shower-afflicted FP1, the reigning F1 World Champion focussed his efforts on evaluating new aerodynamic components for the aerodynamically-underperforming MP4-24 - principally a new front wing, substantially revised floor section and matching top body - and would later take more than 2.2 seconds off his morning effort to wind up nigh-on two tenths of a second clear of his nearest rival, home hero Sebastian Vettel for Red Bull Racing. It was, he reflected, an extremely promising start.

"We've still got a long way to go but, most importantly, these new upgrades are pushing us in the right direction," the 24-year-old underlined. "The car still lacks downforce, but there's definitely been an improvement from the new parts we tried today.

"It's a work in progress, but the guys back at the factory have done an incredible job to get these parts to the circuit - I've even heard of one guy working a 36-hour non-stop shift to build these parts, which is incredible. Hopefully we'll now do our job at the track and try to keep everything moving forward. It's still early days, and we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, but I'm hopeful of being able to get into Q3 tomorrow and look at scoring a couple of points on Sunday afternoon."

Team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, by contrast, ended both sessions mired firmly down towards the bottom end of the order. Eighteenth in the morning, the Finn improved to 17th later on, a full 1.6 seconds adrift of Hamilton, who was the only one of the pair to benefit from the Woking-based concern's new front wing and bodywork kit due to a scarcity of parts. Reporting grip problems in the cool conditions - the kind of issues that have plagued McLaren since the MP4-24's birth - the 27-year-old spent his time evaluating both Bridgestone tyre compounds, and fears that on a personal level at least he may be in for a long and fruitless weekend.

"Clearly, there were differences between the two cars today as we pushed hard to bring the new parts to the track as quickly as possible," he admitted. "Without the upgrades, we didn't have a good basic package and had some trouble getting heat into the tyres, but the lack of parts is simply an indication of how hard we are working - and, of course, I understand that.

"There have been people working night and day to get these new parts out to the track, and it's just unfortunate that we don't yet have two complete sets for both cars. Still, it's really encouraging for the whole team that the upgrades appear to be working on the car. For my engineers and myself, the most important thing we can do is to keep our heads down, focus on the rest of the weekend and keep on pushing, because any improvements we find will still benefit the whole team."

Notwithstanding Kovalainen's struggles in the non-updated car, the overall balance of the day for the multiple world championship-winning outfit was undeniably a positive one - what is important now is that this time it transpires to be a real long-term step forward, and not just a transitory one like that seen in the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir back in April.

"An encouraging afternoon for Lewis, who used the full new aerodynamic package for FP2," summarised team principal Martin Whitmarsh. "Although it is still early days, and I'm sure we've yet to see the strongest efforts from Red Bull Racing and Brawn GP, I think there are good signs of an improvement.

"It was a more difficult day for Heikki, who regrettably didn't have the new aerodynamic package upgrade, encountered traffic on his laps and generally had a much tougher afternoon - but he is a fighter, and I'm sure he'll have a strong weekend nonetheless."

"This looked quite encouraging, I have to say, and definitely better than I'd anticipated before the sessions today," concurred Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. "We certainly did not post 'show times' for our home race; our speed was genuine and quite a bit better than in the last races. I certainly don't expect us to be fastest tomorrow, but if everything comes together we probably will be in a position to deliver a solid job on race day.

"Heikki's car today was not on the same technical level as Lewis', which had new pieces that only arrived last night and which are not yet available in sufficient numbers. Our KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) hybrid is a good help around this circuit, and gives us more than three tenths of a second per lap."


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