Hamilton struggles to get a grip as Button flies

World champion remains defiant despite running with back markers during first outing for tomorrow's season opener
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After the unforgettable finish to last season it has been a tortured time for Formula One and the pain continued for Lewis Hamilton yesterday as he confronted the magnitude of McLaren's problems. He finished the second practice session for the Australian Grand Prix – the opening race of the new campaign – in 18th place and then tried to put on as brave a face as he could muster.

"My day has not been too bad," he opened, which was pretty good from a guy who finished a stunning third on his debut here two years ago, won last year and then wound up only faster than Nelson Piquet and the Swiss rookie Sebastien Buemi. By any world champion's standards, it was agonising.

Asked after the first session, in which Hamilton finished 16th, if he was in trouble, the new McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh replied: "Yes, initially he was in trouble for not driving fast enough! But then we discovered a problem with the floor of his car."

That was fixed for the second session, but though Hamilton lapped faster he lost places. It is possible that McLaren did more work on their set-up for the race rather than running for fast times, but his mien was not that of a happy man try as he might to generate that impression.

"Obviously, we are not as quick as we would love to be but we got through quite a good programme and made some decent steps, for us at least," Hamilton said, sounding ever more evasive. "I don't really know what everyone else is doing on the track but I am happy with what we have done today." A radio conversation that was broadcast caught the driver complaining of his chassis bottoming and being difficult to drive. "Yeah," Hamilton said, "it is a very bumpy track, so I think at the time we were just a bit too low. That's what happens when you are on heavier fuel, so we will make some changes to make sure that doesn't happen anymore."

More like the ride height was reduced as much as possible in an effort to generate greater grip. Like the Ferraris (10th and 11th in the second session) and the fancied BMW Saubers (14th and 15th), the McLarens (17th and 18th) were struggling all day for the grip that the drivers of the Williams, Brawn and Toyota cars could take for granted after their controversial diffusers were declared legal overnight by the race stewards.

Williams made a much-applauded return to the top spot in both sessions, courtesy of Nico Rosberg, who was chased in the faster second session by Brawn's Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button (second and fifth), Toyota's Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock (third and sixth) and Kazuki Nakajima's Williams (seventh). The "standard" (ordinary diffusers and no KERS system) pacesetter was Mark Webber's Red Bull in fourth place, but the Australian said that he would not be in that position today, suggesting that, like Adrian Sutil in ninth in a "standard" Force India, his had been a low-fuel run.

Felipe Massa in 10th spot was the leading KERS-class runner, igniting fears of a three-tier world championship over the first four races until rivals can catch up with the "D-class [for diffuser]" cars when the circus returns to Europe for the Spanish GP in May. Sources at McLaren say they do not expect to be fully competitive until then.

"In general it is a good car," Hamilton said of his McLaren, "it is just general lack of grip everywhere, pretty much. It is not particularly one area of the track, it is everywhere. We cannot carry the speeds through the corners. It is predominantly aero [dynamic]. The guys back at the factory are working very hard to rectify that. There is no quick fix. It is going to take some time."

He denied that he was using any new bits on his car yesterday, though McLaren flew in some revised components specifically for this meeting.

He also confirmed that he was not using the adjustable front wing in practice, but that his McLaren's KERS system was helpful. "You use it over a lap. On the longer runs it is learning how to manage it. I don't think it's rocket science. It's the same for all of us, we use it as much as we can and we have 400 kilojoules for around six and a half seconds to use over a lap, so you generally try to use a second a time out of every corner if you can but you have to spread it out throughout the lap."

Having always been competitive since he graduated to F1 in 2007, Hamilton conceded that running at the back is not much fun. "I think it's tough for anyone, but we've got a lot of experience as a team, and I've got a lot of experience of running at the back in other categories. So it's not completely new. But for sure we're not in the place where we would rather be. We've got a very tough challenge ahead of us but if anyone can do it, I believe my team can."

It is indeed ironic that, as Hamilton's fortunes have declined, those of fellow countryman Button have become enhanced by the extraordinary pace of his Brawn (nee Honda) car. All the work last year while that season's Honda was struggling, paid off yesterday as Barrichello and Button looked as strong as they had been in testing.

Albert Park: Practice times

First Session

1 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota, 1min 26.687sec; 2 Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota, 1:26.736; 3 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari, 1:26.750; 4 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Brawn-Mercedes, 1:27.266; 5 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:27.453; 6 Jenson Button (Eng) Brawn-Mercedes, 1:27.467; 7 Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari, 1:27.642; 8 Timo Glock (Ger) Toyota, 1:27.710; 9 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes, 1:27.993; 10 Fernando Alonso (Sp) Renault, 1:28.123; 11 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber, 1:28.137; 12 Jarno Trulli (It) Toyota, 1:28.142; 13 Robert Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber, 1:28.511; 14 Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Force India-Mercedes, 1:28.603; 15 Sebastien Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari, 1:28.785; 16 Lewis Hamilton (Eng) McLaren-Mercedes, 1:29.042; 17 Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault, 1:29.081; 18 Nelson Piquet (Bra) Renault, 1:29.461; 19 Sébastien Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari, 1:29.499; 20 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault, 1:32.784.

Second Session

1 Rosberg 1:26.053; 2 Barrichello 1:26.157; 3 Trulli 1:26.350; 4 Webber 1:26.370; 5 Button 1:26.374; 6 Glock 1:26.443; 7 Nakajima 1:26.560; 8 Vettel 1:26.740; 9 Sutil 1:27.040; 10 Massa 1:27.064; 11 Raikkonen 1:27.204; 12 Alonso 1:27.232; 13 Fisichella 1:27.282; 14 Heidfeld 1:27.317; 15 Kubica 1:27.398; 16 Bourdais 1:27.479; 17 Kovalainen 1:27.802; 18 Hamilton 1:27.813; 19 Piquet 1:27.828; 20 Buemi 1:28.076.