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 Nürburgring – 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 Nürburgring 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 Nürburgring, 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!”