McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen trailed the pace-setting Ferrari pair of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen throughout the opening day's practice for this weekend's Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, but the team insisted it was focussing on race pace and was unconcerned about the Scuderia's
The scarlet machines were always expected to hold the upper hand around the challenging Ardennes circuit, with defending Formula 1 World Champion Raikkonen the race's undefeated winner since 2002, and Massa undoubtedly the in-form driver as the 2008 season – and title battle – reaches fever pitch.
Sure enough, world championship leader Hamilton and team-mate Kovalainen were respectively six and seven tenths adrift of Massa's best effort as they placed third and fourth in the morning running, though they swapped positions as the rain arrived later on – even if neither of them could live with Ferrari star's pace.
“This morning the temperatures were quite low,” related Hamilton, who holds a six-point advantage over Massa in the drivers' standings ahead of the race, “so the track lacked a bit of grip and made warming the tyres more difficult than normal.
“The wet-dry conditions we encountered are typical of Spa, but they make if difficult to change your set-up because you're always attacking a moving target. Still, we got some good data this morning before the rain came, so we feel we're in good shape for tomorrow.”
“In mixed conditions like this afternoon, there's not a lot you can learn about the set-up,” agreed Kovalainen, “but there's a lot at risk if you lose the car. In the damp, the kerbs were extremely slippery – like ice, almost – so we weren't in a great hurry to go out this afternoon until the track dried out. It's hard to know where everybody stands because of the rain, but our times in both sessions show we're looking competitive.”
Over the past few grands prix, the Woking-based outfit has closed the gap separating it from its Maranello rival to just eight points in the constructors' table – and team principal Ron Dennis well knows the squad must re-assert its authority this weekend in terms of pure pace, after Massa left Hamilton behind in his wheeltracks in both Budapest and Valencia in recent weeks.
“The changeability of the weather, both this morning and this afternoon, influenced our decision to concentrate on race set-up and tyre selection procedures,” explained the 61-year-old. “The result was a smooth and uneventful pair of practice sessions for us today. We're now looking forward to what we believe will be improving weather conditions throughout the remainder of the weekend.”
“Typical Spa,” added Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug, “a partly wet and partly dry practice. Nevertheless, we learned a lot and found a good basis. Today's times don't mean a lot, but I think we should be in good shape.”