The noises coming out of McLaren-Mercedes at the end of the opening day of practice for the 2011 European Grand Prix in Valencia are overwhelmingly positive, with Martin Whitmarsh and Jenson Button pointing to 'productive and encouraging' progress – and Lewis Hamilton asserting that 'we've got some more pace up our sleeves for the rest of the weekend'.
The morning FP1 session saw Hamilton lap fourth-quickest and Button seventh, with the pair improving respectively to second and fourth later on in FP2, as the leading half-dozen contenders found themselves blanketed by barely half-a-second, with McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull Racing and Mercedes Grand Prix all looking to be in with a decent shout. It was, affirms team principal Whitmarsh, a promising first day.
“This was a typically busy test day for McLaren-Mercedes,” the Englishman confessed. “The morning session's focus was primarily on gathering data – not just for this weekend but for future races, too – and the results were both productive and encouraging.
“Whilst we were finding it quite difficult to switch on the 'Prime' – both Lewis and Jenson were unable to achieve a truly satisfactory balance with it – it was encouraging to note our pace once we switched to the 'Option', on which we looked immediately competitive. The challenge for our engineers tonight will therefore be to successfully achieve a set-up that balances both compounds. Overall, we feel comfortable with the direction we established today.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Hamilton and Button, both of whom have finished on the podium around the streets of Valencia before – the former, indeed, has taken the chequered flag as the runner-up in all three previous editions of the European Grand Prix to be held in the Spanish city – and both of whom are desperately keen to bring to an end Red Bull's crushing qualifying dominance in F1 2011 this Saturday.
“It was very slippery out there today,” revealed Hamilton. “In FP2, the grip was a little lower because the new 'Prime' tyre proved a bit tricky to switch on, but once we fitted the 'Option' tyre, it was much easier to drive and we seemed to have some pretty decent pace.
“There are still plenty of improvements we can make to the car. We need to work on the balance; it's not a million miles away, but it could be better. There are some things we'll change this evening to make it more stable. It looks very tight up at the front, but we're definitely in the fight, which is the important thing. I think we've got some more pace up our sleeves for the rest of the weekend, too.”
“This morning, we were mainly collecting data,” added Button, “so I spent quite a lot of time in the garage. In the afternoon, I did a bit more running and tried both tyre compounds. The 'Prime' proved quite difficult to switch on, and consequently we couldn't find a good balance with it.
“I think we've got a good balance on the 'Option', though – and, because the track will grip-up quite a lot with every session we run, we're now heading in the right direction balance-wise with the 'Prime', too. I wasn't paying too much attention to the times today, as it was more important to work with our engineers to get the car working on both sets of tyres – but, as I say, I think we've found a positive direction now.”
Meanwhile, just as Hamilton has been forced to reaffirm his commitment to McLaren in the wake of fevered speculation linking the 2008 F1 World Champion to Red Bull in 2013 [see separate story – click here
] – with Helmut Marko doing his damndest to stir up a hornet's nest once more by proclaiming that 'it is our goal to have the two best available drivers...I think everyone in the paddock at the moment is interested in getting a seat at Red Bull' – so Button found himself in Valencia facing suggestions that he is debating a switch to Ferrari.
“I don't know who put that out there, but it wasn't us and it wasn't Ferrari,” the 31-year-old stressed, rubbishing the speculation as 'hilarious because it's not true'. “I think it's just some column inches. I'm sure we (he and McLaren) are going to have to talk about it soon because it's been mentioned so much in the press. We didn't plan on talking about it quite yet.”