Lewis Hamilton may have lapped quickest of all on the opening day of practice for this weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix, but the defending F1 World Champion admitted that McLaren-Mercedes still has 'a lot of work to do to beat the Red Bulls' - and whilst he acknowledged that a front row starting spot in Budapest would be 'beautiful', for now he is keeping his expectations firmly in-check.

McLaren had always expected the Hungaroring - with its tight and twisty nature not a million miles away from that of Monaco, where the MP4-24 also showed strongly - to suit its car better than most circuits this year, and both Hamilton and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen corroborated that form in locking out the top of the timesheets in FP1 and FP2, separated by less than five hundredths of a second at the close.

The improvements seen last time out at the N?rburgring - where the Anglo-Finnish pairing qualified respectively fifth and sixth, and Hamilton very nearly took the lead into the first corner - have clearly produced a significant step forward for the hitherto uncompetitive and aerodynamically poor MP4-24, and having been out of luck on race day in Germany, Hamilton is clearly hoping Hungary will provide payback.

"Firstly, I love driving here," enthused the 24-year-old, who triumphed in Budapest in 2007. "It's definitely in my top five tracks on the calendar. It's quite a complex circuit, very technical, with lots of bumps and you need a good rhythm. [We're lacking pace] over the bumps and at the exits of corners - unlike the Red Bulls and the Brawns, we're just not able to get the power down as early. It's the speed out of the corners onto the straights where we lose out.

"Still, the guys at the factory have done an incredible job; I'm looking forward to seeing them next week, just to express how thankful I am for all the hard work they've been doing. We've refined the improvements we had at the N?rburgring and they seem to be working, but we've still got a lot of work to do to beat the Red Bulls particularly. Nevertheless, it's encouraging to be able to push the car - I'm happier with it than I've been all season.

"The front row would be beautiful but, to be honest, I'm just aiming to get into Q3. The car is much more competitive - we've come from 2.5 seconds off, but we're still about four to five tenths off the leaders, so we've got to keep working to make that up before we can start thinking about winning."

"I've got the full upgrade package that Lewis raced at the N?rburgring, and the car now feels much better to drive," added Kovalainen, who achieved his first and thus far only F1 victory in Hungary this time twelve months ago. "We've got a new floor, a new front wing, updated bodywork and some small changes to the suspension. It's a big package - and I know how hard the team has worked to get everything here. There are still components arriving at the circuit today!

"The grip level is so much higher now. Stability under braking is much better, and the guys have done a fantastic job to improve the balance at the rear. We still have to keep working hard to make further improvements - but this is a great starting point.

"I still think we need to look at the data and analyse the strength of the opposition. Of course, it would be fantastic to carry this over into qualifying and the race, but we need to be realistic; I'm sure tomorrow morning will give us a much clearer idea of the position of the Brawns and the Red Bulls - but after today's performance, I'll definitely be going for it!"

Indeed, the sight of the two Silver Arrows firmly at the upper end of the pecking order - the first time in 2009 that both machines have been right at the sharp end of proceedings - is a welcome one for a team that has endured a hellish season to-date, characterised by the Melbourne 'lies' scandal, a chronically underperforming car and the crushing superiority of 'customer' Mercedes-powered rival Brawn GP.

Whether the current resurgence marks a definitive turning of the corner remains to be seen and confirmed by solid results on race day, but the multiple world championship-winning, Woking-based outfit's team principal Martin Whitmarsh is certainly in buoyant spirits as the first rays of light begin to appear on the horizon of a generally stormy first year in charge.

"The new aero package that Lewis' car was fitted with in Germany was originally intended for Hungary, but as things turned out we were able to introduce it one race early on one car only," explained the Englishman. "Here, in Budapest, we've been able to use it on both cars. It's a pretty major change, which has taken us down a different aerodynamic route from the one we initially followed with the MP4-24's design, and I think it's fair to say that that new direction appears to be a fruitful one.

"In addition, we've also made a few extra aero modifications over and above the original Hungary aero package, and both drivers have clearly benefited from those mods today. As a result, the MP4-24 is now generating a significant amount more downforce than it was at the beginning of the year - and, combined with what was always a pretty sound mechanical package, the result is the performance step we've seen today.

"A racing driver will always drive up to and including his car's limits, so whenever you extend those limits by improving his car's performance, his initial reaction on his first outing will always be a very positive one, simply because he's been enjoying exploring new, higher limits. On his second outing, by which time he'll have encountered those new, higher limits, he'll be making fresh observations. As a result, his feedback will be less positive than it was after his first outing - but that's exactly as it should be. You want your drivers to be insatiably ambitious, and ours' are.

"This morning was basically a test session in which we did some disciplined development work and gathered some useful data. This afternoon we turned our attention to trialling race fuel loads and doing tyre comparisons. There were no big issues, and our drivers both performed well. We learned quite a lot today, in fact.

"For tomorrow, we hope to be able to improve our car's ride a little, and to continue to optimise its set-up and thereby find a little more speed. We know what programme we were on today in terms of tyres and fuel loads, but we don't have the same information about our competitors, so it would be foolish to make predictions about the rest of the weekend. Suffice it to say that we hope to qualify well with both cars, from which platform there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to race competitively on Sunday."

"Quite a constructive first day on this demanding track," echoed Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. "Clearly, our KERS hybrid is a big help around this circuit - particularly in the first sector - but, in addition, it's obvious that our car in total has improved a lot since Silverstone two races ago. Now we need to continue in the same direction tomorrow and on Sunday, in order to finally bring home a creditable and respectable result."