Having described himself the previous day as mentally and physically very strong and fully prepared to do his best in Monaco, Lewis Hamilton duly delivered the goods in practice here on Thursday.
He was in devastating form on the dry track in the morning practice ahead of Sunday’s grand prix, immediately lapping six seconds faster than his closest rivals as he went out and found the limit sooner than anyone else.
When Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg briefly stuck his nose in front by two-thousandths of a second, Hamilton responded immediately by going half a second quicker. Later, he stretched the gap to a second. It was a similar story in the afternoon before rain spoiled things after 20 minutes, as he headed Rosberg by 0.7sec, and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari by just over a second.
Having signed a new three-year contract with Mercedes believed to be worth around £19m a year, Hamilton said he had worked hard to discover how he could improve on the track where his idol Ayrton Senna won six times but he has been beaten by Rosberg for the past two seasons. When the challenge came, his self-confidence and panache were extraordinary.
“I had a great first day here,” he said. “Every year it stuns me how fast we have to think out there, with so much information coming at you, and you have to be more reactive and agile than anywhere else. The target is always to get on the pace as quick as you can and to be very specific and precise in the set-up changes you make. The balance today was not far off, so we’ve been tuning that.
“Now we need to make the right steps forward with the car and pick up on Saturday where we left off today.”
Hamilton was not the only driver to stand out, however. Teenager Max Verstappen is still too young to hire a road car, but he was second only to Hamilton in the morning session in his Toro Rosso. His performance owed a little to timing, as the track was always improving and some of the faster runners had started to do some race-preparation work when he set his best time, but in its own way it was awesome, and not a little reminiscent of the way in which Senna had laid a marker here in 1984. Especially as he admitted that on his first lap in the team’s simulator he had gone off at the first corner.
“I built it up slowly in the first practice because it was all new for me,” he said, never having raced here, “but I felt really good in the car. This gave me a lot of confidence and to finish the morning session in P2 made me feel great. I can be happy with my first day driving here.”
Jenson Button, meanwhile, has admitted he exaggerated the state of his McLaren in Barcelona, when he spoke of the “scariest 30 laps” of his career. “I was very outspoken,” he said sheepishly. “When emotions are running high you exaggerate things. But it was a tough race for me.”
One McLaren insider reported: “There was a lot of noise in one car there, and not much from the other.” But on Thursday Button recovered well after problems in the morning to shadow team-mate Fernando Alonso.
Monaco is traditionally the playground of the rich and famous, but on Thursday Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone could be excused if he seemed a little distracted in the wake of his battle with HMRC over an alleged £1bn tax bill.