F1 season preview: Hamilton on quest for redemption
After the agony of Brazil, McLaren's great Briton is confident he has the car and the ability to take his first world title
On the one hand there is the view that having come within one race and one point of winning the world championship in his rookie season, Lewis Hamilton will walk it this year. On the other, there is just a chance that 2007 was the best opportunity he is going to get.
It depends on your disposition. Hamilton is the sort who believes not only that the glass is half full, but also that tomorrow he can make sure it is brimming over. So while Ferrari's drivers Kimi Raikkonen, the man who snatched the title from him at the 11th hour in Brazil last October, and Felipe Massa have set the pace during most of the winter testing, he has his own clear message for the champion.
"With the package we have, I doubt very much that Kimi will run away with it," Hamilton says. "What they have is a very good car. But it was a bit strange that they weren't at all the tests that we were. We have very equal cars."
It is always dangerous to read too much into testing form, as the times are notoriouslymisleading. You never know for sure what fuel load or set-up configuration a team are running at any particular time, for instance. But the indications suggest that the Scuderia have made a step forward, and after rectification of a couple of problems, McLaren's new MP4-23 was very quick in Barcelona.
But will Massa, a race winner in 2006 and '07, be able to raise his game again and challenge Raikkonen? Will the Renault refugee Heikki Kovalainen, who has posted some fast times in testing, be able to do to Hamilton at McLaren what Hamilton did to Fernando Alonso last year? Neither team have a No 1 policy, and each say that their drivers have total equality of equipment and opportunity. The prospect of another four-way fight is tantalising.
The question of who will be behind McLaren and Ferrari is too close to call right now. Last year BMW Sauber had a lock on that position, but they face fearsome opposition as they fine-tune their fast but tricky F1.08. The Williams FW30 has looked strong in testing, in the hands of both Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima. And despite the gloomy comments from Alonso lately, Renault will surely be up there sooner or later. It is time Red Bull did something impressive too, and Toyota.
This year will also be an important one for the sport geographically, with new street venues opening up in Valencia, for the European Grand Prix, and in Singapore. Both will take racing to the people, and the latter will also be significant because it will usher in a new era: Formula One's first night race.
Another key change is to the final session of qualifying. The "fuel burn" laps were tedious and wasteful and gave F1 a bad eco-image, so now they have gone and Q3 will be a 10-minute shoot-out between the fastest 10 drivers. They will not be allowed to refuel afterwards and must push hard the whole way through. That should improve the show on a Saturday afternoon.
The most significant technical change is that all teams must use a standard electronic control unit supplied by McLaren. The FIA have thus succeeded in banning electronic driver aids such as traction control or engine braking assistance. This means drivers will have to do more of the controlling of the car under acceleration or in the wet, and look after their rear tyres more, rather than relying on technology. It should lead to better racing, since we might see more driving errors.
Hamilton admits that losing the crown in Brazil hurt more than he let show at the time, and that he has spent time in the winter learning how to deal better with the pressures of being a title contender. "I have learned not to let the pressure get to you," he says. "You have got to stay focused and not let all the politics and everything get to you.
"In your first year everyone is waiting for you to fall. This year is different, because everybody knows I can drive. I feel going into the first race I am not going into an unknown world. All last year these new things were being thrown at me."
The quest for redemption, for himself and McLaren, starts here.
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