The paddock in Hungaroring, said Lewis Hamilton this weekend, seems a much bigger place than it did 12 months ago. Back then he had just been denied his final chance at pole position when his McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso blocked him in the pits, angered that Hamilton himself had not moved over for him during the silly fuel-burning laps that characterised qualifying back then.
That move subsequently led to Alonso being given a five-grid place penalty for impeding the Briton, handing pole position, and the race win, to Hamilton and generating sufficient bad feeling to make the former champion fall out with McLaren's management and eventually head back, dudgeon high, to Renault for 2008.
This time around the silver arrows took both places on the front row of the grid, for the first time since the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last year, and the harmony within the team was tangible as Hamilton and his new team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, discussed their chances for another crucial race in the for-mer's championship campaign.
"It was tough last year, for sure," Hamilton said. "Very intense. When I walked into the paddock for the first time this year I thought, 'Jeez, I remember how busy it was last year with all the photographers crowding around'. This year it seems more relaxed and more spacious. And that feeling is better for us because we can just keep our focus on winning. We have a nice environment here with no distractions. That's a nice position to be in."
But that might not have happened. Hamilton dominated the first qualifying session, but as the track temperature rose steadily, Ferrari's Felipe Massa was able to set the pace in the second. Crucially, he had chosen Bridgestone's harder tyre compound, which proved more suitable for the changing conditions. Hamilton stayed with the softer tyre option, which McLaren had intended to use in Q3, the third qualifying session.
"We were fast in Q1, but the times in Q2 were quite close," Hamilton conceded. "But it was very tyre-dependent. In the end we were very happy. Felipe was quick on the harder tyre in Q2, and I was only third on the softerone, which we planned to use for Q3. But the track temperature went up from 37 to 41 or something, so that obviously had a big effect on the tyres."
Last time out, at Hockenheim, McLaren's strategy in leaving him out during the safety car period, when everybody else pitted, risked losing Hamilton that race. This time they did not fumble the decision-making. "The safer option was to use the harder tyre, it was the stronger tyre to be able to use as it did not seem to grain so much," he continued. "That worked out very well for me, although I lost a bit of time in the second sector."
At that stage Massa intervened, waggling his fingers theatrically. "Felipe doesn't believe it," Hamilton said with a laugh, "but there is still a bit of time in the car. On my best lap turn four was fine, but I locked up the right front in turn five and that pushed me on a little bit, so I lost time on the way in. It was maybe half a tenth, a tenth, but that's important. The rest of the lap was very impressive. Heikki was faster than me in the last sector, he's pushing me, and that's a good thing."
The Finn's best lap was 1min 21.140sec, and he is likely to be on a slightly heavier fuel load than Hamilton. Like his team-mate, he praised the ongoing development work that has currently made the McLaren better than the Ferrari.
"The car has been feeling strong the last few races," he said. "We have been improving the package all through the weekend, it's been a matter of making it better in qualifying.
"It was difficult choosing the right tyre, and I also planned to use the softer one, but we changed our mind when everyone else went quicker on the harder tyre. It was a great effort from everybody."
Alongside the two McLaren drivers, Massa put a brave face on a day that saw him as Ferrari's better runner in third place and Kimi Raikkonen only sixth fastest, separated from his team-mate by Robert Kubica in the BMW Sauber and Timo Glock in the Toyota.
The Brazilian's lap in Q2 was actually faster than Michael Schumacher's 2004 lap record, but with a bigger fuel load in the car for Q3 he could not quite match the McLarens.
"I was actually not 100 per cent happy with my laps in Q3," he admitted. "I chose a little bit the wrong time to be on the track, with so many cars around, and they were very slow on the out lap. I like to go slightly quicker then, and it was really tricky doing the preparation of the tyres, which I could not do in the way I was supposed to, so I couldn't do a great lap like I did in Q2." Nevertheless, Massa believes he can fight the two cars ahead of him this afternoon. "We are pretty strong. I think we are there, for sure we are not where we were in the race at Hockenheim. I feel we are there and that I can push these guys tomorrow." Hamilton listened to that quietly, smiling to himself. "There are no surprises, no miracles, we just keep on pushing hard and making good progress," he said in explanation of McLaren's recent resurgence. And he said that he probably feels more at ease in a FormulaOne car than ever before.
"Every time I get in a car, I learn something. I get more comfortable and stronger. I'm at my best, as comfortable as I've ever been. I feel pretty much on top of things, but there's still room to improve." You might have agreed with him after Canada, but right now it is hard to see where he is lacking. All things being equal, the Hungarian race should be his to lose.Reuse content