Hamilton hits stride for race of his life after early tyre trouble

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The Independent Online

Lewis Hamilton found himself embroiled in yet more political argument here yesterday, as he faces the most crucial race of his life, when McLaren fell foul of officials by breaching tyre regulations in the morning's session.

However, he did not let that prevent him from setting the fastest time of the day as he got to grips with the circuit here in Sao Paulo for the first time.

The rules state that no driver may use more than one set of wet and one set of extreme-wet weather tyres during the first and second practice sessions. Hamilton's crew accidentally gave him two sets of wets, breaching Article 25.3 of the 2007 Formula One Sporting Regulations.

"We just made a mistake," said a shamefaced McLaren spokesperson, but it was just another incident that will not help the 22-year-old, who admitted on Thursday that the threat of a penalty for his driving behind the safety car in Japan had a significant effect on his mental preparation for the recent Chinese Grand Prix in which he eventually slid off the road and into retirement.

What made it all the more ironic is that he only did 10 laps here all morning, and only one of them was on one of the sets. On his first run he had set the fifth fastest time of 1min 21.121sec as Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa set the pace.

After deliberation, the stewards came up with the greatest bit of commonsense thus far in a troubled season. McLaren (and Honda for Jenson Button and Super Aguri for Takuma Sato) were fined £10,000 and, should it remain wet today (which is unlikely), they can voluntarily surrender a set of wet tyres so as not to derive any benefit from having part-worn tyres available. If, as expected, it remains dry, there will be no other penalty.

Hamilton walked round the 2.67mile track on Thursday, but admitted that he had not driven it on the highly sophisticated simulator in McLaren's Woking headquarters. "If I thought it would have helped I would have done it," he admitted. "I think on the first computer game that I played, the first race was Brazil, so I have an idea where it goes and it's always been one of my favourites, most of the time the end of season race. So I have a really good idea of where the corners are and I'm looking forward to getting out there."

Yesterday afternoon Hamilton demonstrated the speed with which he learns new venues by setting the pace on his 16th lap of the track, and he spent the remainder of the afternoon vying for the fastest time. In the end, Alonso's 1:12.889 lap was insufficient to dislodge Hamilton, who earlier had lapped in 1:12.767. Massa and Raikkonen were third and fourth fastest in their Ferraris, with 1:13.075 and 1:13.112 respectively.

"It's a good start to the weekend," Hamilton said quietly. " It's a great circuit and I enjoyed myself this afternoon. The car feels good. "

Inevitably, especially after the tactics that Alonso used on Hamilton in the Belgian Grand Prix, where he forced him wide and off the road at one stage on the opening lap, there has been much speculation about their relationship in this showdown.

"I think it's as good as ever," Hamilton said. "I think we have got on quite well all year, despite what the media says. They always try to make a big gap between us and they haven't really succeeded. We just get on quite well and got on with our jobs and we continue to do that."

In Belgium he did say, however: "For the last few years I've been watching Formula One and Fernando is always complaining about other people being unfair. But he pushed me wide quite deliberately. For someone who looks up to someone who is trying to set a status and someone for a youngster to look up to, he's not really standing up to his position.

"I outbraked him into turn one, I was on the outside, there was enough room for him to get round. But he really cut across and pushed me wide. It was quite deliberate. If I had held my position we would have collided."

Racing drivers have not always been noted for the length of their memories. "As Lewis said, the media has been saying many, many things about us that weren't true," Alonso chimed in. "We never had problems with each other. We are obviously fighting on the track but off the track we have had a very good relationship from day one and it's still the same."

Both men seem relaxed, each handling their respective challenge in their own way. Hamilton scoffed at the idea that he has prepared himself by using a psychologist.

"I've never used one," he said. "I don't really know the answer to that because I have never been in this position before, trying to win the world championship... I think you just have to treat it as you usually do. I want to win, but as Fernando says sometimes you have to be conservative and the only thing I can do is look at what he has done for the last few years and what Michael did in previous years and try to learn something from their strengths or weaknesses. I am going to do the same job as always and try to stay on the track this time!"

BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX (Interlagos, Sao Paulo) First free practice times:

1 K Raikkonen (Fin) 1min 19.580sec; 2 F Massa (Bra)1:20.062; 3 H Kovalainen (Fin)1:20.829; 4 N Rosberg (Ger) 1:21.064; 5 L Hamilton (GB) 1:21.121; 6 R Schumacher (Ger) 1:21.243; 7 S Vettel (Ger) 1:21.598; 8 M Webber (Aus) 1:22.104; 9 J Trulli (It) 1:22.104; 10 V Liuzzi (It) 1:22.250; 11 R Barrichello (Bra) 1:22.434; 12 J Button (GB) 1:22.477; 13 D Coulthard (GB) 1:22.667; 14 T Sato (Japan) 1:22.929; 15 A Sutil (Ger) 1:23.248; 16 K Nakajima (Japan) 1:23.261; 17 A Davidson (GB) 1:23.551; 18 S Yamamoto (Japan) 1:24.366; 19 N Heidfeld (Ger); 20 R Kubica (Pol); 21 F Alonso (Sp); 22 G Fisichella (It).

Second practice session times:

1 Hamilton 1min 12.767sec; 2 Alonso 1:12.889; 3 Massa 1:13.075; 4 Raikkonen 1:13.112; 5 Fisichella 1:13.549; 6 Kubica 1:13.587; 7 Rosberg 1:13.655; 8 Nakajima 1:33.664; 9 Coulthard 1:13.706 10 Heidfeld 1:13.785 11 Schumacher 1:13.829 12 Kovalainen 1:13.879 13 Barrichello 1:13.892 14 Button 1:14.095 15 Liuzzi 1:14.152 16 Trulli 1:14.179 17 Vettel 1:14.409 18 Sato 1:14.431 19 Davidson 1:14.477 20 Webber 1:14.543 21 Sutil 1:15.095 22 Yamamoto 1:15.715.


* Drivers

1 Lewis Hamilton 107pts

2 Fernando Alonso 103

3 Kimi Raikkonen 100

4 F Massa 86; 5 N Heidfeld 58; 6 R Kubica 35; 7 H Kovalainen 30; 8 G Fisichella 21; 9 N Rosberg 15; 10 D Coulthard 14; 11 A Wurz 13; 12 M Webber 10; 13 J Trulli 7; 14 S Vettel 6; 15 J Button 6; 16 R Schumacher 5; 17 T Sato 4; 18 V Liuzzi 3; 19 A Sutil 1; 19 R Barrichello 0; 21 S Speed 0; 22 A Davidson 0; 23 S Yamamoto 0; 24 C Albers 0; 25 M Winkelhock 0.

* Constructors

1 Ferrari 186pts; 2 BMW Sauber 94; 3 Renault 51; 4 Williams-Toyota 28; 5 Red Bull-Renault 24; 6 Toyota 12; 7 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 8; 8 Honda 6; 9 Super Aguri-Honda 4; 10 Spyker-Ferrari 1. McLaren stripped of all constructors points