By David Tremayne in Istanbul
He flew through the air, but not with the greatest of ease. Lewis Hamilton got caught up in a ridiculous stunt enacted by a public relations company on behalf of sponsor Vodafone here on Thursday, to the chagrin of his McLaren team's own representatives, when he dangled through the air in an Istanbul theatre looking like he had become entangled in some sort of giant nappy.
It was not the sort of image one would expect from a team who pride themselves on the gravitas of their on-track performance and it is safe to say that changes are afoot to ensure that such external bungling never recurs.
Though he put a brave face on things the demeaning moment got the 23-year-old title contender's weekend off to a counter-productive start and he ended qualifying clearly frustrated as Felipe Massa and Hamilton's McLaren team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, beat him to the front row of the grid.
McLaren seemed strong against the dominant Ferraris and as Kovalainen played himself back in without so much as a flinch after his horrifying accident a fortnight ago in the Spanish Grand Prix, Hamilton looked quietly confident. He ended Friday a mere 0.036 seconds adrift of Kimi Raikkonen, the man who beat him to the 2007 world championship.
At the end of yesterday's first qualifying session he was also quick, this time trumped by Massa by less than two-tenths of a second. "The car felt really good," he said of his McLaren. When he tried the medium compound Bridgestone tyres in the second session, however, he was less happy. Crucially, as Kovalainen opted to stay on that rubber, Hamilton switched back to the harder tyre. It was a move that failed to pay off.
The switch from the race's traditional August date to May had resulted in ambient temperatures no higher than 18 degrees centigrade in comparison to 30C-plus last year, when Hamilton's championship chances took a dent following the delamination of a front tyre when he was set for a podium finish. All through Friday many drivers reported problems getting their tyres up to their optimal operating temperatures. "That wasn't such a problem for me on either set of tyres. I managed to get them both up to temperature," said Hamilton. "But it was a tough qualifying session for me."
His lap of 1min 27.923sec left him third in the line-up. "I had a fantastic lap in Q1, but I struggled a little bit on the softer option tyre in Q2, so I opted for the prime tyre again in Q3. I thought it would be more consistent through the lap, but I guess I made the wrong decision. I struggled on my first Q3 lap, it was just terrible. The second run was an improvement, but it was not quick enough.
"It could be better for sure and the lap wasn't good, so [I am] pretty disappointed. I chose the wrong tyre and it didn't give me the performance and the car didn't feel great." In particular, he got into an oversteer wobble that robbed him of speed and momentum in the ultra-fast Turn Eight, the corner that sorts men from boys.
Meanwhile, Massa did the job on a track he adores. On his three visits for Ferrari he has taken pole position each time and won the last two races. Today he is all fired up to boost his title fight with a hat-trick. "I think I put together a very good lap," the Brazilian said, "and in Q3 I warmed the tyres in the right direction and managed not to be behind anyone. I passed Fernando [Alonso] on the out lap just to be sure of a clean lap. My first try was a very good lap and on the second I improved just enough to be on pole. It's my third time here with Ferrari and my third pole and it would be fantastic to repeat that tomorrow. It's a fantastic track for me."
In between Massa and Hamilton, Kovalainen's return was triumphant. "It's been a roller-coaster last couple of weeks," he conceded. "I was very lucky to survive with no injuries in Spain but I knew I would pass the medical here. I felt 100 per cent. The first few corners on Friday were a bit funny, but after that it was all OK. I was very happy with the car and felt very confident, and my second lap in Q3 was nice and clean."
Hamilton did not look happy after the session and did not seem his usual upbeat self. "I think we have a good package this weekend," he said, "and we should be up there with the Ferraris and be able to push them during the race. We can overtake here, but whether I can win we'll have to see. We aren't in the best position to do so."