Lewis Hamilton was left to ponder the mysteries of Formula One when he struggled into fifth place on the grid for today's Spanish Grand Prix. After covering more than 1,000 miles on the Barcelona track during a recent test session, the McLaren-Mercedes team were unable to make their car work at maximum efficiency for the mere 2.89 miles that made up the final lap of qualifying. Hamilton said he was 'shocked and stunned' at the McLaren's lack of pace, particularly during the final stage of qualifying when forced to run with enough fuel necessary for the first phase of today's 66-lap race.
Hamilton's difficulties with the fuel-heavy McLaren may have been underlined by Heikki Kovalainen being even slower with sixth-fastest time, but the Briton's frustration was made worse by Kimi Raikkonen taking his first pole position of the year after Ferrari had demonstrated more consistency than McLaren throughout practice and qualifying. While it may have been one thing to think about both Ferraris being ahead on the grid (Felipe Massa qualifying third), it was quite another for Hamilton to find he had also been beaten by the BMW of Robert Kubica and the Renault of Fernando Alonso as the former world champion spilt the Ferraris.
Renault's unexpected improvement in form may have been welcomed by Alonso's many supporters, but the Spaniard was quick to play down suggestions that he might win his first race since leaving McLaren at the end of last year.
'There is no doubt that the car is better than in the first two races,' said Alonso in reference to Australia and Malaysia, where he qualified 12th and ninth. 'Having both cars in the top 10 (Nelson Piquet having qualified 10th) means we have definitely improved and it's a great achievement by everyone at Renault. But we have to be realistic. Qualifying has been good, but we need to keep calm. I'm extremely happy with this, but I cannot say to the fans that we will be on the podium; that would be too optimistic. However, being on the front row means I have a good chance of taking advantage of this.'
The suspicion, as ever, is that the Renault was running with a light load of fuel, the better to boost morale with an impressive qualifying result at the expense of an early pit stop in the race. None the less, Alonso and Hamilton will be aware that overtaking is even more difficult than usual at Barcelona thanks to the predominance of medium and high speed corners and that almost continual testing here means the cars are extremely closely matched. The top 10 drivers were covered by less than a second, the same gap having accounted for the 16 quickest cars during the middle phase of qualifying. Only once during the past 10 years has the pole position winner at Barcelona failed to win the race. Despite having a poor record here, Raikkonen is therefore in a good position to extend his lead of the championship.
Hamilton's performance may look bad on paper, but the Englishman needs to quickly dismiss suggestions that his world has come crashing round him by producing a clean, aggressive race without the mistakes that characterised his last outing in Bahrain. Hamilton must avoid attempting to compensate of any deficiency in his car by pushing too hard. Today's grand prix may be the fourth in the 18-race championship, but the intensity of the competition is such that Hamilton cannot afford to have further errors rob him of points and allow the opposition to build an advantage that may be difficult to erode. Hamilton is aware of the pressure that is mounting on all sides.
'I knew this would be the case,' he said. 'I guess things are quite a bit different from last year, when I could just shrug things off and nobody would ask you any questions. I've been very fortunate because I don't see any of the papers or the stories that are circulating. The people around me work very hard to make sure I don't have to worry about what's going on. There's a lot of pressure, most of it coming from me, but I don't feel it's a distraction. Last year I was just a driver who was here to have fun and do the best job he could. Now I'm trying to carry my country on my shoulders, as well as a massive team.'
There has been no sign of the racism evident during an earlier test session at Barcelona when Hamilton was taunted by a small section of the crowd. The FIA chose this weekend as a logical moment to launch their 'EveryRace Campaign' against prejudice in motor sport. Given Max Mosley's immediate and vigorous condemnation of the attack on Hamilton in February, it is surprising that the FIA president is not present. Mosley has said this race was never on his agenda. Cynics have noted that King Juan Carlos of Spain, an avid follower of F1, will be on the grid as usual this afternoon and Mosley's absence will avoid what would have been an awkward meeting demanded by protocol.
Meanwhile, a meeting attended by Bernie Ecclestone and representatives from the 11 teams yesterday morning became heated when two teams (believed to be Williams and Toro Rosso) refused to sign a document calling for Mosley's resignation.