Former world champion Lewis Hamilton has written off his and McLaren-Mercedes' chances of fighting for victory and breaking his Bahrain Grand Prix duck in the F1 2010 curtain-raiser at Sakhir this weekend – though he does acknowledge that happily, the team is in far better shape than it was this time twelve months ago.
The unloved MP4-24's performance around the Bahrain International Circuit was in actual fact the sole real highlight of the opening half of 2009 for Hamilton, as the car's poor aerodynamic design offered scant cause for celebration anywhere else.
Beginning the 2010 race in the desert kingdom from the same position in which he took the chequered flag there last year – fourth – the 25-year-old admitted that it had not all been plain sailing, as several shots of him wrestling the MP4-25 around the track went to show, but added that it is a decent way to start the season and offers good reason for encouragement.
“I'm surprised by this afternoon's result,” reflected Hamilton, after losing crucial set-up and qualifying simulation time to a brake cooling duct failure towards the end of FP3. “We didn't have the pace of the faster cars and I definitely wasn't expecting to be fourth-quickest, but it's a good starting-point and tomorrow I hope to keep the position or gain at least one more. I don't think a win is going to be on the cards – but we'll be giving it the best we can.
“We've struggled in the middle sector – we're lacking a bit of downforce – but I know the guys back in the factory will be pushing as hard as they can. Managing the tyres tomorrow is going to be very tricky; I don't think people perhaps understand how tough it is to look after them in these conditions – it's unbelievable how quickly they drop off. We'll take the race one step at a time, [but] this is a much, much better position to start the season in than the one we found ourselves in last year.”
That much is inarguable, and what is also inarguable is that in the early internecine duel between the all-British pairing and two most recent F1 World Champions, Hamilton has the edge over team-mate Jenson Button, who looked to be grappling around even more to keep the car on the right line and extract a lap time out of it. Only just scraping into Q3, the 30-year-old wound up almost half a second slower and more than a second-and-a-half adrift of pole position when the session came to an end.
“I really struggled with fronts locking this afternoon,” reported the defending race-winner, “but we cured that problem throughout the sessions. I was getting happier with the car throughout each stint, but in Q3 something didn't feel quite right. The engineers are looking at the data to see what it was.
“It's been a surprise to us to see the pace of the quickest cars. Today, we saw which cars are fast over one lap; tomorrow, maybe we'll see a slightly different picture because these cars work very differently on higher fuel loads. Besides, your strategy isn't decided on the Saturday anymore – we'll need to see what the others are doing in the race.
“There will be a lot of heavy cars going into Turn One tomorrow, but hopefully I'll pick a nice line and get through cleanly. I'm looking forward to the challenge, and it's going to be a very different one to what everybody has been used to. It will be a long race tomorrow.”
“We had a few issues with grip and ride in qualifying today,” concluded the Woking-based concern's team principal Martin Whitmarsh, “especially in the middle sector of the lap over the bumps. That being the case, both our drivers did a fantastic job – and as a result Lewis will start tomorrow's race from the second row and Jenson from the fourth row. It will be a hot and tiring Sunday afternoon for all 24 drivers, but Jenson and Lewis' fitness and determination will benefit them throughout the 49 laps.”