Hamilton predicting sunshine after a long winter of reflection

After examining his life off and on the track, the McLaren driver believes he can launch a real challenge for the world title in Melbourne on Sunday, he tells David Tremayne

It was 2008 when Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren last shot away from the grid leaving the pack in his wing mirrors at the start of a season. He went on to win the title in what was his second run in F1. This year, he is in the right frame of mind to add another world championship, provided his car is up with the Red Bull.

That, of course, is the big question. McLaren have not had a really strong start since '08. The 2009 season was a disaster, both 2010 and 2011 managed only reasonable starts. This year, the omens are much better. Testing form is notoriously tricky to assess, as only the teams know how much fuel they carried to set their best times, but Hamilton shares the belief at McLaren that he and Jenson Button will start the 2012 season in Melbourne on Sunday much closer to Red Bull.

"I feel more relaxed and ready for the new season than I think I've ever done," he says. "Unlike last year everything has gone smoothly with the car and it just seems to be a responsive and reliable package. My final day, running the aero package we plan to run at the weekend, also felt good: the car was a definite step forward. Of course, we haven't tested it in competition yet – it's weird to have driven the car for a month and still not to have done a really fast lap – I guess we'll really find the limit on Saturday [in qualifying]."

The young Britton who will turn up for the first of the three key practice sessions for the Australian Grand Prix on Friday will have, he said, "a big smile on my face".

This is very different from the hangdog man who haunted the McLaren garage in Korea last year, where even pole position did little to improve his mood. Hamilton puts his sunnier disposition down to a winter in Los Angeles looking into what went wrong, why he got more publicity for clashing with Felipe Massa and being beaten on points for the first time by a team-mate, Button, than he did for three fine victories. "I analysed races, went through graphs of race traces and tried to see where my strengths were – races where I was quite strong, races where I can improve.

"In Malaysia, for example, I flat-spotted a tyre which then led to me having to use the wrong set of tyres which then led to me running seventh which then led to me having a penalty with Fernando [Alonso]. It's just trying to avoid those pitfalls."

Or the all-too frequent clashes with Massa, or the collision with Kamui Kobayashi that took him out of the Belgian GP at his beloved Spa. All of these incidents were atypical errors. "I think that's just a case of being more switched on, more aware of your surroundings, being more alert," he says.

He adds, of a mid-season when everything seemed to go awry: "I had a lot going on in my life at the time, my mind was not clear."

Getting the best out of Pirelli's fragile rubber was the least of his problems, as his relationship with Nicole Scherzinger (left) faltered – they are back together now – and he seemed to spend more time socialising off the track than thinking about his job on it. But that is last season. Sunday is this season.