Lewis Hamilton has all-but written off his and McLaren-Mercedes' chances of doing battle for pole position for this weekend's German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring following the opening day of practice – although he concedes that the team is likely to be closer to the pace come the race.
Hamilton lapped just fifth-quickest in the morning FP1 session and seventh in the afternoon, on both occasions more than a second shy of the benchmark set respectively by Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber. The British star admits that McLaren is not in the same ballpark as either Red Bull Racing or Ferrari at present – although on the plus side, he is confident that with the FIA's off-throttle blown-exhaust ban having now been reversed, the MP4-26 is at least more competitive than it was last time out at Silverstone, where he could qualify only tenth.
“It's been a productive day for us,” the 26-year-old revealed. “We went through all the running plans that we had, and and my long-run pace is better than it was at Silverstone, which is a good thing. We seem to be maybe two or three tenths off at least the Ferraris [on race pace], and then over a single lap they've definitely got about a second on us.
“We definitely can't challenge for pole, but then having said that, it's only Friday, so it's too soon to draw conclusions – we don't know what fuel level everyone was on or what programmes the other teams were running. We might be pleasantly surprised tomorrow to find that we are heavier than others, and that again brings us closer – but historically, that's not the case.
“The race is a completely different thing, though. The Ferraris look like they're up there, and the Red Bulls seem quick too, so we expect to probably be just behind them, [but] anything can happen. Who knows if it's going to rain? We'll be working hard tonight and tomorrow to maximise our chances.
“We've got some small updates on the car and they seem to be working, which is also positive – we're still pushing as hard as we can, and the car's feeling quite good. It's just we can't carry the same speed or go any faster through the corners through the car sliding, so we're going to refine the set-up to see if we can find some more downforce. That's the only thing that stops me and Jenson [Button – team-mate] from doing the same laps as them.
“Nonetheless, we have made improvements this weekend. The engine mode that we had in Barcelona and, for example, in Valencia works a lot better than what we had at Silverstone; just on that long run compared to the others it seemed [to be] two or three tenths [off], which is much, much better than the last race. We need to just keep on going in that direction.”
Countryman and fellow former F1 World Champion Button, for his part, lapped in the region of half-a-second adrift of Hamilton in both sessions, placing sixth in the morning and only eleventh at the close of play. The 31-year-old confessed that it had not been the easiest of days for him.
“It's been a slightly frustrating day for me,” he reflected. “I couldn't get a good balance on the car this morning – and, once we'd found some rear grip in the afternoon session, my KERS Hybrid system was no longer working. That cost me quite a bit of lap time under braking and on corner exits. Then, with 20 minutes of the afternoon session remaining, a problem with an experimental exhaust brought my day to a premature end. It was a test part, and failures sometimes happen when you're trying new things on a Friday.