Secure in the knowledge that thanks to a seven-point lead he needs to finish only second to arch-rival Felipe Massa in the next three races to clinch his first world championship crown, Lewis Hamilton looked relaxed yesterday as he set the third fastest lap time behind Germany's Timo Glock and the Singapore Grand Prix victor Fernando Alonso.
Glock's run was most likely made with minimal fuel aboard his Toyota, and while Alonso is looking increasingly strong in an improved Renault, Hamilton seems quietly confident in his situation.
While conceding that he did not fully appreciate the situation he was in this time last year, prior to a superb victory in the rain here, he said: "Last year I was a little bit younger and so excited by the fact that I had just arrived in Formula One. So much was going on, the controversies, there was so much to learn and take on board.
"I was leading here but I did not understand the magnitude of the situation I was in and what was around me, and the pressure that was on my shoulders. I dealt with it the best way I could, and it wasn't the best. I learned from those mistakes and I come here this year having taking a big step in my personal life as a grown up, and I think I have matured as a driver and learned from my mistakes. I feel a lot stronger than I did last year in terms of my state of mind and fitness. Last year, by this time of the year I was so exhausted because it was such a crazy season.
"This year we are focused on the championship, and the importance of finishing races and scoring points for the team. Last year I felt a bit nervous. But I don't feel it this year.
"Fuji is not the easiest of tracks because it requires a good set-up to get the best from the car, but I had no complaints today. We were immediately on the pace and found a very good balance straight away. I feel confident about our pace for the rest of the weekend."
Team principal Ron Dennis echoed the mood when he said: "Today we conducted two trouble-free sessions, encountering no problems with either of our cars: a normal day at the office, you could say. Having said that, whomever I talk to in our team, I notice the same thing: we're more together, more focused, more committed and more motivated than ever before. There's a tremendous feeling of comradeship – in our garage and in our hospitality units here at Fuji, and of course back in Woking, in Brixworth and in Stuttgart. And that comradeship, that will to win, will persist throughout this race weekend and throughout the final two weekends of the season, too."
Ferrari, meanwhile, have reverted to a standard "lollipop" system of control during their refuelling stops, after problems with their electronic system cost them victory in Singapore. They, too, got off to a strong start with Massa fourth and Kimi Raikkonen fifth.
Meanwhile, the FIA race director Charlie Whiting once again found himself at the centre of ire in F1 circles. Two weeks ago he was taken to task in the FIA Court of Appeal by McLaren's lawyer for alleging that the former FIA permanent steward Tony Scott-Andrews admitted he had made a mistake in allowing Toro Rosso to appeal against a post-race time penalty in this race last year. While seeking to have Hamilton's Belgian GP penalty overturned via a similar appeal, Mark Philips QC suggested that the truth was that Scott-Andrews had said no such thing, and had a signed statement from Scott-Andrews to that effect.
This time the Red Bull team took Whiting to task in a team managers' meeting by demanding to know why it took him so long to report the pit lane entry infractions of Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica in Singapore, and then for stewards to levy 10-second stop-and-go penalties. According to Red Bull's simulation of events in the inaugural F1 night race, it took the race director 21 minutes to levy the penalties, and it was a further seven before Rosberg came in to serve his. That, they argued, meant the difference between the German finishing in the eventual second place that he claimed, and what they argued should have been eighth place. That meant that they lost points to Williams; perhaps more crucially it also arguably robbed Hamilton of two points in the championship chase.
Whiting argued that he was busy dealing with the fallout from Massa's pit stop, in which the Brazilian took off with the refuelling hose still attached and then nearly collided on release with Force India's Adrian Sutil. Other team managers suggested that that matter could have been sorted out much faster, and then wanted to know why, as Massa sat for 30 seconds outside the Force India pit with the remains of the hose still attached to his Ferrari, the first Ferrari team member alleged to have reached him was not dressed in the mandatory fireproof clothing. Hiograf Kottur handles Ferrari's transport arrangements, and was not a member of their refuelling team. Whiting reported that, under the circumstances of the botched stop, it would have been unfair to penalise the team further for this apparent infringement of the safety rules.