They were, both of them, pluperfect laps. And, just in case anyone needed confirmation after all that he has achieved this year, they demonstrated yet again the talent of Lewis Hamilton.
Six laps into his first run at a greasy but virtually dry Interlagos, a circuit familiar to him only from his PlayStation, he was fastest, and he stayed that way on Friday afternoon. Yesterday morning, the track now bone dry, he timed his final practice run to perfection, made himself the space in traffic that his McLaren team-mate and title rival Fernando Alonso did not, and pushed between the rampant Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen.
If this was a man cowed by the error which prevented him from clinching the title in China two weeks ago, it didn't show.
Some relaxation back home had worked wonders in the intervening period, he admitted the day before. "I just had a littlebit of time at home. My family had planned a little trip; they went away so I didn't really have much time with them, but I had time to just relax at my real home, my parents' house, did some good training, made sure I was physically fit for this weekend, as this is an anti-clockwise circuit, so it's a bit harder on the other side of your neck. If anything, I just feel a bit morerelaxed this weekend, quite a bit more relaxed than I did at the last race." That did show.
"It definitely didn't make me more nervous," he continued, reflecting on his trip into the gravel in Shanghai. "If anything it took the pressure off my shoulders and I think I came out of it even stronger. I thought it would knock my confidence but I went away and thought about the weekend and I feel I'm even stronger. It was a good learning experience. Coming here, I feel a lot different compared to the last race. The last race was always... the pressure was building and everything was going on, on the Thursday and Friday, and it wasn't a great weekend. But I feel relaxed now and fully confident in the team and our ability to challenge for the title."
Everyone admits there is tension in the McLaren garage, as Hamilton and Alonso fight each other while having to keep a wary eye on Raikkonen, the third championship protagonist. The advantage lies with Hamilton, with 107 points to Alonso's 103 and Raikkonen's 100, but in many previous situations where three have gone into the final shoot-out, the underdog has won through. The tension, however, is born of the need to attack and defend at the same time, rather than animosity between the drivers. No one who understands racing, and McLaren's long-established culture, believes the FIA-installed "equality steward" in their garage will be anything but unemployed this weekend.
"We're not thinking about it or talking about it at the moment," Ron Dennis, the team principal, said of the title chase on Friday. " We're focusing on every day singularly. Today we were just trying to make the best out of a very difficult damp-dry condition practice. Tomorrow we'll fight for the front row and then we'll worry about the strategy for the race as we enter the last qualifying, but clearly either of our drivers can win.
"We've got to demonstrate to everybody who's putting us in the spotlight along with Kimi that we've done a competent job and given every opportunity to win." Dennis described the atmo-sphere in the garage as "tense, but professional and calm".
Alonso was second fastest, with Hamilton fourth, in the first qualifying session, but Hamilton reversed that in the second as they vied with the Ferraris.
Massa took pole position in the crucial final session, perhaps running light to act as Ferrari's hare today, but Hamilton again stamped his authority, to the cheers of the crowd, as he snatched second from Raikkonen, leaving Alonso fourth.
"I almost had the pole. It was close and I enjoyed the session," Hamilton said. "We seem to have real pace, the team did a good job as always to get us out in good space. I just lost a bit of time in the last corner. It wasn't a mistake, I just didn't want to lose what I had up to then. It was close to a perfect lap, so I'm very happy.
"I'm just buzzing, really excited. I feel very relaxed about tomorrow. I love the circuit, the food here is great, the fans are extremely enthusiastic and the car felt great beneath me. I'm looking forward to the race."
The drums here have been beating out some interesting sideshow rhythms this weekend, which perhaps partly explains the signing by Ferrari of Massa until the end of 2010. Sources at ING, the Dutch banking group who sponsor Renault, insist Alonso will buy himself out of his McLaren contract (allegedlyfor $30m) and head back to the team he abandoned, with Nelson Piquet Jnr as a rookie team-mate who perhaps will not offer him the grief that another novice did this year. At the same time, as Frank Williams holds on to Nico Rosberg (possibly, if there is any justice, with Tonio Liuzzi as his partner), McLaren will pair Hamilton with Renault refugee Heikki Kovalainen.
Rumours also abound of the imminent departure from Toyota of Ralf Schumacher (definite) and Jarno Trulli (possible) in favour of BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica and the GP2 champion Timo Glock. Schumacher is telling himself he has a chance at Spyker (to be renamed Force India under the new ownership of entrepreneur Vijay Mallya), while elsewhere in the pit lane Giancarlo Fisi-chella may be facing the end of the road and Rubens Barrichello is said to close to retirement.
But the focus lies inevitably on the championship struggle and, as far as many Britishfans are concerned, whether Hamilton can finally get the job done. This afternoon, just as it did in China a fortnight ago, greatness beckons.Reuse content