Lewis Hamilton knows he has to crack qualifying this weekend if he is to have any chance of breaking his Formula One duck for the year.
After four fly-away races to start the season, Formula One is back in its European heartland over the next few days, starting with the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya here.
Just 20 points separate the top seven drivers, with Hamilton sandwiched in the middle in fourth place, 11 points behind his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button. That is despite the fact Hamilton has arguably been the driver of the season so far, executing a remarkable 32 overtaking manoeuvres in comparison to Button's seven.
Yet it is Button who has twice taken the chequered flagwith a mix of smooth driving and shrewd decision-making. Hamilton knows he should be much closer to Button in the standings, but his one-lap performances have so far proved his undoing. Fourth on the grid was respectable enough in the season-opener in Bahrain, but in Australia he wound up 11th. In Malaysia a bad call as the rain played havoc saw him start in a lowly 20th, and just over two weeks ago in China he was set for pole after dominating first and second qualifying session – Q1 and Q2 in the jargon – but managed only sixth after falling by the wayside in Q3.
On a track where there have been a miserable two overtakes in three of the last five races, Hamilton is aware he has to make it count in qualifying on Saturday.
"As we did in China, we'll be putting additional emphasis on qualifying," said Hamilton. "It will be more important than ever in Barcelona as traditionally it's always been a track where overtaking is very difficult. Given that most cars will only be stopping once, we have less scope for passing, so a good grid position will be vital."
At least McLaren are competitive and on the ball this season, in comparison to a year ago when they were languishing towards the back of the field. Hamilton has no reason to doubt they will be challenging Red Bull for supremacy in Spain, although all teams will be sporting the developments they have worked on in the past few weeks.
"We've got a couple of fairly significant upgrades coming for this race," said Hamilton about a McLaren that will have new front and rear wings. "While it would be naive to think these will move us up the pecking order, because almost all the teams produce a major bodywork update for Barcelona, we're optimistic they'll again help us to bridge the gap to the leading cars.
"Of course, we've proved in the past we've been both extremely capable and prolific at adding performance to the car across the course of the season, so I'm hopeful we're heading into Barcelona in good shape. But if it's a dry race, then realistically I think it's going to be harder for us to be up at the front."
According to his team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, however, that might not necessarily be the case as he feels the car is adapting much better these days to the quicker circuits, such as Barcelona.
"In recent years we've produced successful cars with inherent performance characteristics that enable them to perform better in slower corners," said Whitmarsh. "While we haven't overlooked high-speed performance, it's not typically been our strongest area, and that might explain our recent loss of form around the Circuit de Catalunya.
"For 2010, however, we feel we have a car that generally excels in high-speed corners, although that in itself isn't enough to suggest a complete reversal of our recent fortunes in Spain.
"But we feel the useful upgrades we're bringing to this race will help us consolidate our position among the leaders."