Lewis Hamilton may admit to being a little surprised by Sebastian Vettel's qualifying pace in Bahrain, but believes that McLaren still has the car to chase victory in round four of the world championship.
The Briton, who headed to Bahrain at the top of the point standings after three straight back-to-back third place finishes, was pipped to pole position by Vettel's 1min 32.422secs effort in Q3, but will line up alongside the German when the race gets underway. Vettel's pole follows on from his worst qualifying performance for two years, when he gridded eleventh in China, and suggests that Red Bull has made gains in the hotter conditions of Sakhir. Vettel has also reverted to the newer exhaust system available to the RB8, which he eschewed in Shanghai, but Hamilton admitted that he had not expected the changes to be so dramatic.
"I've always thought the Red Bulls were the quickest on race pace," the Briton told journalists, "They were just struggling a little in qualifying, [but] all of a sudden they've picked it up. I thought they would eventually catch up - they've generally got a bit more downforce than anyone else, as they have [had] the last few years - [but] I don't know where they've picked up their time. They've obviously made a big difference. Perhaps, in other races, it's been a [lack of] tyre temperatures and here, in the hotter conditions, it's easier for them.
"They've clearly made a good step this weekend. I anticipated they'd be very quick and, on their long run pace, they're very strong - probably the strongest. Mark [Webber]'s been the fastest in all the races so far I think, so it'll be interesting tomorrow, but we'll do everything we can to give them a run for their money."
Despite missing out on pole - and he has yet to qualify outside the top two all season - Hamilton reckons that his McLaren can be a match for the Red Bull on raceday. Row two features a similar pairing, as Mark Webber and Jenson Button line up third and fourth, making the run to the tight turn one an interesting prospect.
"The start is going to be key," he admitted, "Each year [in Bahrain], I have started on the dirty side, and here I am again. But we have much better launches this year so, fingers crossed, I'll be able to challenge them down into turn one.
"I'm less than 0.1secs away [from Vettel] and that is a real positive for me. I'm very happy with the job we've done. We've just been trying to improve the set-up all weekend and, in FP3, it wasn't the most spectacular. It was a little bit close in Q1 but, thank goodness, we got through. Generally, it's probably one of my best qualifying sessions, even though, obviously, in the past, we did it on the first lap, getting pole position. [This time] the first lap wasn't great and the second lap was great. I'm quite happy with that, but we just need to keep on pushing."
Hamilton insisted that, despite being towards the top of the times throughout the weekend, he had been chipping away at the performance of his MP4-27 and expected it to be a good race car.
"I've been really eking out everything that I can," he noted, "Today, we just weren't quick enough to get a pole but, still, to be on the front row is a great feeling and, compared to the last race, obviously we were on the front row, but we weren't able to start there with the penalty. This weekend we're in a much better position, so I'm really excited for a good race but, as Sebastian has said, it's going to be tough to look after the tyres tomorrow."