Lewis Hamilton has lauded the 'amazing turnaround' accomplished by McLaren-Mercedes since pre-season testing after lining up a wholly unanticipated second on the starting grid for the F1 2011 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne – and he has warned pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel to expect 'the race of his life' on Sunday.
McLaren struggled woefully during testing with its new MP4-26 contender, with myriad reliability niggles stymying progress, and performance so uninspiring as to necessitate a series of 'dramatic changes' between the final group outing in Barcelona earlier this month and this weekend [see separate story – click here
Whilst many were sceptical about just how much of a difference that would make – particularly given that the car languished the best part of a second or more adrift of the benchmark in the tests – the fastest two times for Jenson Button and Hamilton during Friday practice Down Under hinted at a significant step forward.
That much was subsequently corroborated in qualifying, with the 2008 F1 World Champion lapping second-fastest in all three sessions, and snatching the outside front row grid slot from Mark Webber in a substantially quicker Red Bull by just under a tenth of a second. And now, the 26-year-old asserts, he is targeting victory.
“We've obviously taken a lot of heat over the last few weeks from all of our winter testing,” Hamilton reflected in an interview with BBC Sport
, “and the guys have been sweating back home because we had reliability problems and the car wasn't performing in a certain area where we wanted. The guys back at the factory never give up, though, and what a turnaround!
“Okay, I'm being a bit cautious and trying not to be too optimistic, but in qualifying, the car felt fantastic – it really, really did feel great and I was really happy with my lap – and I owe it all to the guys back at the factory, in the design office and those building components. They should give themselves a real pat on the back. It was a brave decision to make such a dramatic change to the car, and a superb effort to deliver that change – an amazing turnaround!
“We've obviously got some work to do from here – Sebastian has got another half a second really in the bag still, so it's one second at least we need to find – but I'm confident that we can build on the foundation and the platform that we've found now.
“Obviously it's a very long race and it won't be won in the first corner, but the race is winnable from where I am. I'm just going to try and focus, get a good start and try to bring the car home with some good points. I know that the car will get better and we'll be able to attack for wins later. Of course we want to win [now], but all in good time – and regardless of the fact that Sebastian is a little bit ahead on pace, I plan on giving him the race of his life tomorrow!”
Hamilton drew praise for his performance from McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who explained that the 14-time grand prix-winner's KERS Hybrid failed halfway around his final flying lap in Q3, leaving him unable to deploy 40 per cent of the power boost that should have been available and costing him a couple of tenths – not enough to overhaul Vettel by any means, but certainly sufficient to narrow the gap a little.
“Yesterday indicated that the car improvements we'd made in the past few weeks were significant, and today proved it,” the Englishman underlined. “I therefore want to say a big 'thank you' to all the guys here in Melbourne and back in Woking who have worked so hard to make those improvements possible. Lewis and Jenson, too, have done a great job this weekend, and the result – second and fourth places on the starting grid for tomorrow's race – is very encouraging.
“Actually, Lewis could have gone a bit quicker still, had he not suffered a KERS Hybrid failure. As a result of that failure, he not only lost the performance dividend that KERS Hybrid provides, but also had to cope with compromised brake balance resulting from the absence of KERS Hybrid – a double whammy, if you like. Still, the parc fermé
regulations allow us to make the necessary repairs, and both he and Jenson will therefore be looking forward to taking the fight to Red Bull on the streets of Albert Park tomorrow afternoon.”