Whilst congratulating his team-mate Jenson Button for having made it onto the front row of the grid for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix, McLaren-Mercedes star Lewis Hamilton conceded that he had chosen to 'sacrifice' some of his own out-and-out qualifying pace in Shanghai today after receiving a veiled warning about his tyre consumption.
Having safely progressed through Q1 on the harder Pirelli 'Prime' rubber – unlike Red Bull Racing rival Mark Webber [see separate story – click here
] – Hamilton served signal of his intent in Q2 with the fastest time of anyone, but he then limited himself to just a single run on the 'Option' tyres in Q3, winding up third on the starting grid behind pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel and countryman Button. He admitted that it had been something of a strategic move.
“We made some really positive set-up changes on Friday evening and I was much happier with our car today,” reported the 2008 F1 World Champion, pipped to the front row by a scant four hundredths of a second. “In qualifying, Jenson and I were very close and we're both up there. Jenson did a fantastic job to put his car ahead of me, but I sacrificed a bit of my own pace to enable me to have a fresh set of 'Options' for the race. We took the decision to complete just a single run in Q3.
“Of course, that was a compromise, but it means I'll have a fresh set of tyres for one of the stints tomorrow – and last week's race in Malaysia showed us how important it is to have fresh tyres for the race. Today's strategy should increase my chances in the race. It's always good to have a fresh set of tyres in the bag, and I wanted to make sure I had options to cover everything. To be able to put on a new tyre at the end of tomorrow's race will be a great positive and will help the longevity of the tyres.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh praised Hamilton's 'considered and intelligent final session' that has left him 'extremely well-prepared for tomorrow's race' – and the root of that strategy may well lie in comments made by the Woking-based outfit's technical director Paddy Lowe, in the wake of Hamilton's tyre-hobbled performance in Malaysia a week ago.
Renowned for his aggressive style behind the wheel, concerns were expressed pre-season about the British star's ability to nurse the considerably faster-degrading Pirelli tyres this year – and Sepang was arguably just such a case in point. Lowe explained that having 'flat-spotted' a set of softer rubber during qualifying in Kuala Lumpur, the 14-time grand prix-winner had left himself with fewer new tyres for the race and consequently had to make an unscheduled fourth pit-stop with just four laps left to run – costing him vital positions and points.
“It is really exciting as we have got a formula now where it seems to be panning out that tyre wear is very, very critical,” Lowe told The Daily Telegraph
, hinting that despite advances last season, Hamilton still needs to learn to better look after his tyres if he is to win races in F1 2011 and suggesting that the issues in Kuala Lumpur were entirely of the 26-year-old's own making.
“What is particularly interesting – and a big challenge for us on the pit wall side – is that you have got to manage the tyres across qualifying and
the race. How you use those tyres in qualifying has a big consequence on your race result, which we saw to Lewis' cost in Malaysia. Crucial phases of the race where he lost out were a consequence of tyre consumption that he had done in qualifying – so a great spectacle, I think, and a job for us to manage it well.”
Meanwhile, as he assesses McLaren's start to the campaign thus far, the softly-spoken Englishman candidly reflected that ambitious pre-season objectives had 'exceeded our ability to deliver' and that the original design of the new MP4-26 had been just too
innovative – but runaway early-season pace-setters Red Bull Racing, he assures, can
“I certainly don't think Red Bull are cruising,” Lowe opined. “I think they're feeling the pressure. We saw that in qualifying, in particular, in Malaysia.”