Lewis Hamilton has admitted that he was relieved to hear that his McLaren mechanics had found the root cause of his handling problems in the Japanese Grand Prix after beginning to think that he had headed down the wrong path on set-up.
The Briton had been towards the top of the Friday practice timesheets but, when it came to qualifying on Saturday, was unable to haul his MP4-27 any higher than ninth, reporting that a handling imbalance had made it impossible to extract any more pace. The problem was highlighted by team-mate Jenson Button being the only driver to remotely threaten Red Bull at the front of the grid, although the Briton was subsequently relegated to the outside of row four after changing his gearbox between races.
Button went on to run in contention for a podium throughout Sunday's race, but ultimately finished fourth, just one place ahead of Hamilton who, after struggling with the same handling traits early on, was able to pick up his pace after hearing a 'clunk' at the back of his car around mid-distance. Having been a title contender prior to his retirement from the Singapore Grand Prix last month, the 27-year old's disappointing performance still allowed him to close to within 42 points of Fernando Alonso at the head of the table, after the Spaniard crashed out on lap one at Suzuka.
Despite the still sizeable deficit, which will be hard to overcome should Alonso remain reliable for the remaining five rounds, Hamilton not only believes that he still has a shot at the championship, but is happy to know that his car hasn't developed an issue for the run-in after McLaren engineers ascertained that his ill-handling car had been caused by a broken part rather than him going the wrong way in set-up choices.
"I know my car really well, so I know [when something's wrong]," the Briton insisted, "It's very rare that I get it wrong and, if I do, it's only a little bit wrong and I can still manage with it. But this was worse than I had ever set it up, and I was really shocked that I had done that and thought it was my fault.
"Fortunately, after the race, the guys did an analysis and found that we had a failure of part of the rear suspension. That's comforting because it means I'm not crazy and happy that we found it, so it won't be a problem this weekend."
Clearly buoyed by the discovery, Hamilton insists that he can still be a factor in the championship race, knowing that a large part of his current points deficit could be wiped out by a single bad race for his opponents, as Alonso found in Japan, when a 29-point lead was all but wiped out by Sebastian Vettel's win and his own retirement.
“It's still up for grabs," he told SpeedTV.com, "It's obviously a little bit tougher for us, a little bit closer for Sebastian and Fernando. But [there are] still 125 points available, so I'm going to try and grab every single one. I'm still in it to win it. It's theoretically still possible, so I'll keep pushing. Even when it's not theoretically possible, I'll still keep pushing, to get up as high as possible.
“Hopefully we'll be very strong this year, as we were last year, when we got pole, and I'm hoping that can be repeated. The Red Bulls have been pretty quick here in the past, so I anticipate that they will be very quick here this weekend, and the Lotus will be quick here, I would have thought. They've been pretty good in a lot of places, but are yet to win a race.... ”