Lewis Hamilton is happy to be hunted by rivals
Sunday 25 March 2012
You only have to look at Lewis Hamilton's two brilliant pole positions this season to see that the old fire is burning within him again. Yes, he was a bit glum after finishing third in Australia last week, but his driving is flowing again and he knows that he has the car with which to win another world championship.
He and team-mate Jenson Button stressed throughout the winter that the most important thing was to make a strong start to the season. McLaren have not done that since 2008, the year in which Hamilton won the title. In 2009 the MP4-24 was a dog for much of the year; in 2010 and 2011 the MP4-25 and MP4-26 became race winners, but only after a huge amount of engineering effort from the Woking team as they played catch-up with Red Bull, who dominated both seasons.
Now the boot is on the other foot, and it's McLaren that starts with the advantage. Button beat Hamilton off the line in Melbourne, and Hamilton was later unlucky with timing of pit stops, and a safety car deployment, which helped Sebastian Vettel to pass him during the second round of them.
"You can't be happy if you start first and finish third," Hamilton said this weekend. "If you start 20th and finish 10th, that's OK, you can be happy with that. But not first to third."
It transpired that after he left the grid for the final formation lap before the start, his engineers instructed him to change the clutch settings; that minuscule alteration made the clutch drag too much, hence Button's better start. On such things can the result of races turn.
"Sometimes those things work for you," he said philosophically, "and sometimes they don't. But the important thing is that Jenson proved that we have a winning car and we had the front row in qualifying there and here, so there are lots of positives.
"As for the pit stops, I wanted to come in a lap sooner than I did. Normally I call it when my tyres are finished and they were by then, but Jenson was leading and wanted to come in, so in the end we stopped together, and with the safety car being deployed a lap later I lost a place to Seb. That's racing."
These things are never easy to take for a competitive racer. But Hamilton is not about to fall apart the way he seemed to at times in 2011 when his personal life was in turmoil. His girlfriend, Nicole Scherzinger, is back with him and came to Australia and Malaysia, as did his mother, Carmen, as he took a leaf from Button's manual on finding your comfort zone.
"I'm very encouraged by our pace," Hamilton continued. "I think both Mercedes AMG and Red Bull Racing have performance up their sleeves, and they'll both be very fast in qualifying and the races. But as far as we're concerned at McLaren, it's nice to be the hunted rather than the hunter, which has been the case in the past few seasons."
And he knows that no team can bring as much technical development to their cars during a racing season as McLaren. Now, the important thing is to maintain momentum and advantage, and move further ahead.
"The result in Australia only doubled everyone's resolve, here at the tracks and back in the factory in Woking," he said. "The development race has already started and we'll be pushing like crazy to stay at the front. It's the pace of development – between ourselves, Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari – that will define the course of the season. And I know that we are very good at that."
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