Hamilton homes in on Hungary hat-trick

Hamilton HungaryThe crystal ball readings for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix are looking increasingly kind for Lewis Hamilton…

Fastest in Friday warm up with Ferrari quick-er but still off the pace; a car beneath him that couldn’t look better suited to the demands of the twisty Hungaroring if it tried; and in sharp contrast to last year, a team-mate who doesn’t look as though he is about to single-handedly wage war against him. Hungary is very much Hamilton’s to lose.

Such was the lack of drama that accompanied the start of his campaign to win three successive races a feat that has not been achieved for two years that Hamilton’s only grumble on the opening day of practice centred on his surprise that there should have been anyone else joining him during his preparations.

“Once again, the car felt good even though I encountered quite a lot of traffic,” said Hamilton, who lapped fourth quickest in the morning session as Ferrari topped the timesheets courtesy of Felipe Massa’s lap of 1:20.981.

But that didn’t stop the Briton taking up his usual spot at the front in the afternoon session as he hustled his McLaren MP4-23 complete with new aero package and nose-winglets around the twisty 4.381km circuit in a time of 1:20.928, two tenths clear of Nelson Piquet, a surprising second quickest for Renault, and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen in third.

“The track was very dusty this morning so we took our time before starting our run programme,” said Hamilton. “This afternoon, I got to try the revised aero package for the first time – it definitely seemed to make the car better balanced, which is very encouraging.”

True, he was on the super-soft tyres, which look to have a clear advantage for anyone that isn’t a Ferrari driver this weekend, but given his tendency to conceal some time in hand, before unleashing it to such devastating effect on Saturday, the McLaren driver goes into tomorrow’s qualifying session as favourite for pole position.

Given McLaren’s apparent superiority at the moment, it is hard to imagine either one of the Ferrari drivers lining up on the front row alongside him, but after the team’s disastrous outing in Hockenheim a fortnight ago, there were clear signs of progress on Friday with the pairing going quickest in the morning, and winding up fifth and sixth in the afternoon.

And it was a considerably happier Kimi Raikkonen that decanted from the Ferrari cockpit after the running. “The situation is not too bad, the car handles better,” confirmed the Finn, “but our main rivals seem to be still a little bit quicker than us, even if there is the usual question mark over any difference in the fuel loads.

“There is still room for improvement and we will concentrate all our efforts on this in preparing for qualifying and the race.”

That said, it looks like it will be another case of damage limitation for the Italian marquee.

“We come here off the back of two rather difficult races and our target here has to be to extract the full potential of our package and then try to secure the best possible result,” mulled team principal Stefano Domenicali.

“Friday’s results always have to be looked at with caution, especially at a track like the Hungaroring, which is always very dirty on the first day. Clearly we are up against some very strong opposition on a track where, historically, we have usually struggled a bit, but I am confident we can have a good race.”

Responsibility for ensuring Hamilton doesn’t have it all his own way in qualifying thus falls to team-mate Heikki Kovalainen. The Finn, whose seat at McLaren for 2009 was confirmed this weekend, has faced tough questions about his position in the team following two races where he has been outpaced by Hamilton, triggering speculation that he has begun to fall into a support role.

Any such theories were crushed in practice though: Kovalainen matched Hamilton tenth for tenth in the afternoon session as the two drivers traded blows in machinery that was perfectly suited to the technical demands of the tight and twisty Hungaroring. The Finn wound up just two tenths shy of his British counterpart in the afternoon, and given his searing pace behind the wheel of his MP4-23 over the single lap, is well poised to challenge for pole position again.

“Another positive day for us,” reflected the 26-year-old. “The car started the day pretty strongly but we were able to keep improving it throughout both sessions.”

“This afternoon, I was able to find a particularly good balance and focused on conserving the tyres rather than going for a laptime. I had a little bit of graining, but things look very promising for tomorrow.”