Reigning F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton was in ebullient mood after leading team-mate Heikki Kovalainen to comfortably McLaren-Mercedes' best double qualifying result of the 2009 campaign to-date – and such has been the team's progress, he contends, that a first rostrum finish of the season on race day cannot be ruled out of the equation either.
The British star sounded a warning bell in pacing two of the three free practice sessions at the Nürburgring ahead of this weekend's German Grand Prix, and he would swiftly reprise that form at the beginning of Q1, clearly revelling in the tricky wet/dry conditions and letting his fabled car control come to the fore. Fourth at the end of that session, the 24-year-old progressed easily through to Q3 with sixth spot in Q2.
Fifth in the final Q3 reckoning only served to underline the benefits that the upgraded aerodynamic package rushed through for the MP4-24 for this weekend – including a new floor, top-body and front wing – have brought to the hitherto underperforming car, and afterwards Hamilton was effusive about its potential, even if he reckoned that he could have been slightly further up the starting order still.
“The car behaves really well,” enthused the nine-time grand prix-winner. “It feels great to have a car that you can really push into the corners, and I'm really happy to be in Q3. It's a big difference for us this year, and the team has done a fantastic job – the conditions were up-and-down, and they did brilliantly to make sure we were on the track with the right tyres at the right time. Also, the guys back at the factory have all worked extremely hard to get the parts to the track – and they have made a big difference.
“Unfortunately, the track got a bit better after I set my fastest lap, when it was a bit greasy, but for Heikki and me to line up sixth and fifth tomorrow is a great result for us. We're definitely in a position to fight for a podium, but trying to beat the Brawns and the Red Bulls will be difficult. The car is still a work-in-progress and there's a way to go – but this is really encouraging. I don't mind if it rains tomorrow, but I'd just like a nice, smooth race!”
Kovalainen, as Hamilton alluded, made it an excellent day for McLaren in backing his team-mate up in sixth, despite not benefitting from the same full package of upgrades credited with having transformed the MP4-24's handling and overall performance. Though more than a second adrift of the sister machine at the close, the Finn's showing was in the circumstances arguably every bit as impressive, and what's more he had to overcome both a brush with the circuit's wall following a spin on the exit of turn four and a tyre mix-up in his pit box on the way to achieving it.
“Today worked out better for me than expected,” the 27-year-old acknowledged of his best starting position of the season so far. “We can be very pleased with that. My tyre strategy worked really well this afternoon, and I had the right tyres in Q2 when the conditions were at their trickiest. Thanks to the team for a superb job in a very tight situation.
“This result is very promising for everyone in the team, and my car worked much better here than at previous races. The team has been working incredibly hard to make improvements to our car and, although I didn't have the same upgrades as Lewis today, it's really encouraging to see the step forward we've taken – we're making excellent progress. Finally, it's great to be able to produce our strongest qualifying result of the year at the home race of Mercedes-Benz – I think they've produced the best engine in Formula 1, and I hope they're proud of their results today.”
Those sentiments were echoed by the multiple world championship-winning, Woking-based outfit's team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who was quick to praise both drivers for their efforts – and who agreed with Hamilton's contention that better still might have been on the cards had only he been out on-circuit when the conditions were at their best.