McLaren feel pressure over tyres
Failure to get to grips with Pirellis has worn away flying start to the season – now Silverstone looms for British pair
Sunday 01 July 2012
"Silverstone is more than just my home race," Lewis Hamilton says ahead of next week's British Grand Prix at the Northamptonshire venue, "it's a giant of a circuit, a real racer's track. Every year we go there it's a mega experience, with the support you get from the fans."
Naturally the spotlight will fall on the 2008 winner, and his McLaren team-mate, Jenson Button, as they carry the expectations of a nation bitterly disappointed by Euro 2012.
"Although I've won the race before, I'd love to win it again," Hamilton adds. "Expectations are always high, because everyone is there waving the flag for you. I get this incredible boost of energy from that."
On recent form, he is the more likely of the two to challenge for the win, something that isn't lost on Button, who has been struggling with tyre performance recently. "The British GP is a big gap in my trophy cabinet," Button admits. "It's the one I would love to win, the one that's missing. I've never been on the podium there."
Button was fifth in 2000 with Williams, 15th and 12th with Renault, eighth in 2003 with BAR Honda, fourth with them in 2004 and fifth again in 2005. With Honda he achieved only a 10th and two retirements, while troubles in qualifying restricted him to a 14th-place start in 2010 and another fourth-place finish. Last year he retired. Now he would like nothing better than to pull himself back into contention by regaining his form and scoring that elusive home win.
"Everyone wants to win their home grand prix, and Silverstone is so special to any British driver," he says. "All the spectators with their flags and rocket-red caps... The support that you get from them is unbelievable."
But how realistic a chance does either have of winning for the home fans? It was at this race last year that McLaren made the first of a series of pitstop mistakes that don't seem to be over yet. One of Button's front wheels was improperly fitted, forcing him to retire before he left the pitlane.
Then there was the error with fuel settings on Hamilton's Mercedes engine that obliged him to back out of the fight with the Red Bulls to conserve fuel. McLaren made immediate amends for that by giving him a winning car in Germany, but it will be in the back of their minds here that such errors cannot be tolerated.
There was yet another pitstop mistake for Hamilton in Valencia when a jack failed and he lost 12 seconds while his left front wheel was fitted on his second stop, but McLaren were bullish after their record standstill time of 2.6sec in his first.
The weather won't be as hot as it was in Valencia, when the ambient temperature on race day peaked at around 30C. The Red Bulls and the Lotuses love that, but Silverstone's 19C forecast should suit the McLarens more.
The team boss, Martin Whitmarsh, admits failure to get a handle on tyre performance was instrumental in front-row starter Hamilton's inability to challenge in Valencia, where Red Bull's latest updates to their car enabled the polesitter, Sebastian Vettel, to walk away from his opposition by up to a second a lap at times.
Hamilton expects a significant technical update to his car next weekend. "The guys are working as hard as they can and pushing as hard as we can to improve," he said. "We've not had the same size of upgrades as others potentially have. We've not really had an upgrade since Barcelona but we'll hopefully have something very soon – for the British Grand Prix, I'd have thought."
McLaren need that. They started the year clearly the fastest, then watched their fortunes ebb and flow like everyone else's as different teams found the elusive sweet spot of Pirelli's "made to degrade" tyres at different times.
Red Bull have now won twice, courtesy of Vettel in Bahrain and Mark Webber in Monaco; Ferrari have won twice, thanks to Fernando Alonso in Malaysia and again last weekend in Spain; and Hamilton's win in Canada prior to that made McLaren a double winner, after Button won the opening race in Australia.
But Red Bull's pace in Valencia, and the Ferrari's ability to cope with high temperatures without overtaxing their tyres, are signals that the update is needed, and fast.
If it arrives and is successful, and if Hamilton and Button work their tyres at the optimum, McLaren's form on fast tracks such as Montreal suggests that both can take the fight to Red Bull and Ferrari.
However, in a season in which Lotus, Mercedes, Sauber and Williams have also thrust themselves into the limelight, neither driver is taking anything for granted.
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