Hamilton in high spirits as McLaren pick up the pace in pursuit of pole

Lewis Hamilton ended practice here yesterday even more confident that McLaren could challenge for pole position and victory, as the question became one of whether he would have to beat Ferrari rather than Red Bull.

Fernando Alonso headed the faster of two sessions with a lap of 1min 15.123sec for the famed Italian team, but Hamilton was only 0.105sec slower and team-mate Jenson Button was another 0.220sec further back in fourth.

The times were very close, as four marques filled the top six places. Local boy Nico Rosberg put his Mercedes in third place with 1min 15.321sec, while world champion and series points leader Sebastian Vettel was fifth for Red Bull and Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari was sixth.

Qualifying here tomorrow afternoon will be crucial, given how hard it is to overtake and the restricted use of the DRS system that enables following cars to go faster by opening up a slot in their rear wings. This can only be activated in the race along a short section of the front straight. Hamilton is one of several who believe the wear-rate of Pirelli's soft and supersoft-compound tyres may be a more significant factor in creating passing opportunities on Sunday afternoon.

"If we had qualifying performance I think we could beat them in the race," said Hamilton, referring primarily to Red Bull, whose cars have won four of the season's five races. "I think I showed at the last race [in Spain last week] that I had the fastest race pace. So that just shows that if I can get on the front row we'd be in a good position."

He was bubbling after the second session, when he said: "I'm really pleased with the balance of the car, but it's going to be close. You quickly get used to DRS and Kers, but you're only really on it for the pit straight and up the hill; you tend not to use it through the slower sections. Maybe I'll find a few more places to use it for qualifying – but I'll keep that in my pocket.

"I just love driving the car here. It's the best thing I've ever done. It's so exciting. You can't afford to make mistakes. The car feels amazing when you're jumping from kerb to kerb. I want to win this grand prix."