Hamilton delivers pace with new McLaren package

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Lewis Hamilton might disagree that he is now the favourite to win the Formula One world championship after blistering back-to-back victories in Silverstone and Hockenheim, but he was the fastest driver again yesterday after the first day of practice for tomorrow's Hungarian Grand Prix.

While his Ferrari rival Felipe Massa set the pace in the morning, Hamilton got the hammer down in the afternoon and was quietly satisfied at the day's end.

"The track was very dusty this morning so we took our time starting," he explained after lapping his McLaren-Mercedes in 1min 20.554sec. "Once again, the car felt good, even though I encountered quite a lot of traffic during both sessions. This afternoon, I also got to try the revised aero package for the first time – it definitely seemed to make the car better balanced, which is very encouraging."

The new package is a tribute to the commitment of the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, in maximising the team's championship challenge. A prototype version was tried in testing in Jerez in Spain last week, with favourable results, but using it this weekend meant putting the chassis through mandatory crash tests again because of the change in configuration of the nose to incorporate the distinctively shaped new wings.

There were those at McLaren who doubted that the new noses could be ready and the tests conducted in time, until the order came down from on high from Dennis: "Get them ready and get the tests done, whatever the cost."

Dennis said: "Today we ran two more or less trouble-free sessions. The aero package we've developed for this race appears to have delivered the predicted results, and the performance of the car is encouraging so far."

The Hockenheim runner-up, Nelson Piquet, split the McLarens at the end of the session with a lap of 1:20.748 compared to Hamilton's team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, who recorded 1:20.760. With Fernando Alonso putting the second Renault fourth in the line-up with 1:20.928, the Ferraris were left fifth and sixth with Kimi Raikkonen edging out his team-mate, Felipe Massa, by a thousand of a second. It would be unwise to predict the downfall of the Prancing Horse, however, as the times are still very close.

"Friday's results always have to be looked at with caution, especially at a track like the Hungaroring, which is always very dirty on the first day," said Ferrari's team principal, Stefano Domenicali. "Clearly, we are up against some very strong opposition on a track where, historically, we have usually struggled a bit, but I am confident we can have a good race."

Nevertheless, there is an air of self-assurance chez McLaren, who were also dominant here last year before the championship began to slip away again. Hamilton admits that the atmosphere within the team is a lot better than it was here in 2007 when he and Alonso fell out during qualifying.

"It was tough last year, for sure," Hamilton said. "Very intense. When I walked into the paddock for the first time this year I thought, 'Jeez, I remember how busy it was last year with all the photographers crowding around'. This year it seems more relaxed and the paddock seems more spacious. And that feeling is better for us because we can just keep our focus on winning."

Hungaroring practice times

First Session: 1 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1 minute 20.981 seconds (121.016 mph); 2 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:21.345; 3 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:21.410; 4 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:21.535; 5 F Alonso, (Sp) Renault 1:21.802; 6 T Glock (Ger) Toyota 1:21.931; 7 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:22.267; 8 N Piquet Jnr (Br) Renault 1:22.326; 9 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:22.370; 10 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:22.457; 11 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:22.654; 12 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull 1:22.700; 13 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso 1:22.900; 14 J Button (GB) Honda 1:22.917; 15 R Barrichello (Br) Honda 1:23.093; 16 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams 1:23.147; 17 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams 1:23.274; 18 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:23.353; 19 G Fisichella (It) Force India 1:23.459; 20 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso 1:23.923.

Second Session: 1 Hamilton 1 minute 20.554 seconds (121.658 mph); 2 Piquet Jnr 1:20.748; 3 Kovalainen 1:20.760; 4 Alonso 1:20.928; 5 Raikkonen 1:21.009; 6 Massa 1:21.010; 7 Heidfeld 1:21.138; 8 Kubica 1:21.363; 9 Trulli 1:21.505; 10 Rosberg 1:21.581; 11 Glock 1:21.662; 12 Webber 1:21.733; 13 Coulthard 1:21.837; 14 Nakajima, 1:21.902; 15 Bourdais 1:21.955; 16 Button 1:22.150; 17 Fisichella 1:22.197; 18 Sutil 1:22.358; 19 Barrichello 1:22.448; 20 Vettel 1:22.945.