Lewis Hamilton admitted to having 'played it safe' in qualifying for this weekend's inaugural Singapore Grand Prix rather than risk everything to seize pole position – after the Formula 1 World Championship leader very nearly failed to make the top ten on the grid for the second race in succession.
Having looked odds-on to get the better of Ferrari title rival Felipe Massa throughout both practice and the first phase of the qualifying hour, it all began to unravel for Hamilton in Q2, when a string of scrappy efforts and traffic on his last run left the McLaren-Mercedes star sweating it out in the final moments as he sat on the bubble in tenth place.
Fortunately for him, neither of the Red Bulls – the two cars that posed the greatest threat – managed to improve, saving Hamilton's bacon. He confessed that after that in Q3 he was happy just to ensure a front row starting spot, rather than take the fight to Massa and risk throwing it all away.
“After I ran wide in the second part of qualifying I decided to play it safe on the one remaining run,” the 23-year-old related, “and fortunately I moved up to Q3 and managed a place on the front row.
“In the last sector I was really fast, but I still have to improve in the first two sectors; particularly at turn five I lost a bit of time. We had a good set-up; however, the tyre decision was not easy today as I felt no big difference between the prime and the option tyre.”
Both Hamilton's fierce duel for the drivers' crown with Massa and that between McLaren and Ferrari for the constructors' laurels are balanced precariously on a knife-edge as the end of the season looms.
The Woking-based outfit's team principal Ron Dennis is aware that the squad did not exactly make life easy for itself in qualifying – but he remained confident of battling back when it counts on race day, when he predicted Hamilton's fuel strategy would play to his favour.
“Well, that was a pretty stressful qualifying hour!” the 61-year-old acknowledged afterwards. “Lewis was hampered by a yellow flag on one of his runs and by traffic on another, which made things a little too close for comfort in the second session, but he then did a very good job in the final session.
“From now on, though, it's all about race strategy. Fuel weight is a very significant factor in terms of lap time on this circuit, so let's just say that we're looking forward to a close and competitive race tomorrow.”
“Lewis had problems with his brakes in the second part of qualifying,” added Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug, “then was called in for a weight check and, when he was finally back on-track, he hit traffic in the last sector. Fortunately he moved up to Q3 – possibly some good luck was on our side.
“Afterwards Lewis qualified second which is okay. Our basis with Lewis in second and Heikki [Kovalainen] in fifth positions on the grid respectively is not quite ideal, but the race is tomorrow. Today we didn't get it 100 per cent right, but tomorrow we want to do a better job, and I think our strategy will help us to do so.”