McLaren mishaps crush home hopes

Hamilton and Button left well off the pace and praying for rain as Red Bull and Ferrari dominate front of grid
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The Independent Online

The stiff upper lip is a peculiarly British thing, and McLaren are a very British team, but the notion of taking defeat with equanimity was wearing decidedly thin here yesterday.

All through the previous week Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton had enthusiastically talked up their prospects of victory in their home race in a series of engagements on behalf of their sponsors – but when the chips were down neither had the equipment to get anywhere close to delivering the kind of performance in qualifying that their bedraggled fans had travelled so far and paid so much to see.

Upgrades to their cars, aimed at minimising the effect of the so-called ban on the off-throttle blown diffusers and enhancing aerodynamic behaviour in Silverstone's distinctively challenging high-speed corners, failed to close the gap to their rivals. As Red Bull continued to rule despite all the rule-change jibba jabba, and Ferrari maintained their pace from the previous race in Valencia and their status as Red Bull's closest challenger – which McLaren had hitherto held – McLaren put on a show that was, at best, feeble.

Button struggled to fifth place in 1min 31.898sec, 1.5sec off Mark Webber's 1:30.399 pole-position lap and a scant 0.1sec ahead of Paul di Resta's beautifully driven Force India. The latter uses the same Mercedes engine but has had nothing like the same budget and technical development lavished upon it.

But if that was bad, given their pre-race aspirations, Hamilton's situation was nothing short of disastrous as his best lap of 1:32.376 was two seconds off Webber and left him as the last of the 10 drivers who competed in the third and final qualifying session. Among them were, besides the Scottish rookie Di Resta, the likes of fellow newcomer Pastor Maldonado in the Williams and Kamui Kobayashi in a Sauber, neither of whom one would normally expect to challenge Hamilton. It transpired that he had used a set of tyres that had gone through their heat cycle in Q1 but not been used thereafter because of the rain at the end of that.

"I don't know what to make of that," Button said. "My first lap was not great. I think the balance of the car wasn't quite there. Fifth... you'd say it's OK after what we've been through the last couple of days, but the gap is massive. One-and-a-half seconds is just massive.

"That's all I have to say, really. It's disappointing to be where we are. I mean, fifth is a reasonable position but 1.5 seconds off the pace... If I got the lap perfect it would have been just a couple of tenths."

The 31-year-old from Frome is an urbane fellow even in times of distress, but his chin was clearly on the floor. "In two hours I will be all positive and hoping that we can do well, but at the moment I'm disappointed with where we are."

Hamilton, usually the more outwardly passionate and critical of the two, did the better stiff-upper-lip job even though his chances are minimal in a race he so desperately wants to win again. "We were just not fast enough," he admitted to Radio 5 Live. "We did everything we could but nobody knew what the weather was going to do and I kept asking my guys. In the end they made a mistake and fitted old tyres when everyone else was on new ones, and I just couldn't get the grip that I needed. By the time I got on to new tyres, the rain came. Shit happens..."

Explaining his upbeat demeanour despite the disappointment, he added: "I guess that's because it's out of my hands, it really is. I drove as well as I could, but we just didn't have the right tyres on." He was also drawing on the affection and support of the crowd. "The fans here are spectacular; that and the family time is all I can take in right now."

Hamilton's father, Anthony, had earlier slammed the FIA's dilly-dallying over the rules, and suggestedthat it put the drivers under far too much unnecessary pressure. But his son was calm: "Everyone is doing their best job to interpret the rules, and that doesn't affect me. I'm just focusing on my job and going forward, and trying to get the car going quicker. I just don't have any choice but to keep a positive attitude and to let the fans help me with that. I think I might have run out of miracles, so I just hope that it rains."

Ferraris fired up

Yesterday, as the spotlight was turned on the argument over technical regulations between Red Bull and McLaren, the famed Scuderia Ferrari got quietly on with their job. And when the dust had settled after qualifying and Red Bull appeared still to be dominant, Fernando Alonso had driven unobtrusively into third place only fractions of a second off their pace. Given that Ferrari habitually race better than they qualify, he can be the genuine challenger for victory that McLaren cannot be.

"It's the best qualifying of the year in terms of the gap to pole position," said Alonso. "We have been averaging one second or seven tenths away and being here in Silverstone at a circuit that is not our preference, being one tenth from pole is good news for us."