Mar.10 (Reuters) 2008 Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton limbered up for the season, which starts in Melbourne next week, by driving reporters around a track in southern England in McLaren’s fearsome MP4-12C GT3 race-spec sportscar.
He looked sharp, hungry to be back behind the wheel and determined to focus on the future.
The championship opens with four long-haul races but the Briton, who had a nightmare season last year while trying to keep alive a transatlantic relationship with American singer Nicole Scherzinger, intends to be more settled in 2012.
He said he now planned to spend much more of his time at home when in Europe.
Hamilton won three races last year but ended up beaten overall by team mate Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion, in a championship dominated by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.
Testing times can be misleading but the title battle already looks like being much tighter with McLaren, who were playing catch-up this time last year, looking quick and tipped to take the battle to Red Bull right from the start.
Hamilton was clearly pleased with how the winter tests in Spain had gone.
“I kept a nice amount of fuel in the car for all of my tests. I wasn’t really bothered with positioning. What matters is when we get to the first race,” he smiled. “It looks like it could be a bit different to the past couple of years where we’ve had the Red Bull just much quicker than everyone else.”
“The Lotus looks like it can be really quick, a couple of the teams have different exhaust solutions. Us, Ferrari and Red Bull generally have a similar exhaust solution. The others, like the Lotus have a different solution, so do Mercedes and they still seem to be quick,” he added.
“So it will be a battle as to which of those designs has the longest road of development, and how far ours can go.”
As for the race weekend ahead, Hamilton said, “Melbourne is a city that has sport running through its veins – and the crowd lives and breathes it. It’s a great place to start the season. For me, Melbourne means sunshine, smiling faces, a great paddock – a bit compact but very friendly, a great city with a really positive vibe – and a racetrack that’s really made for racing.”
“A place where you can really get the back-end of the car moving around quite nicely yet still feel like you’re fully in control of the car. The track has got a nice flow to it – I love the fast sweepers behind the pits, it’s awesome when you get them right – and it’s a place where, the more you can attack, the faster you go. My kind of place!” enthused the Englishman.
The MP4-27 was no slouch during testing and the body language in the Mclaren pit garage far more upbeat than a year ago when they were in crisis mode to rectify an awakward new chassis.
“I actually feel more relaxed and ready for the new season than I think I’ve ever done. Everything has gone smoothly with the car – which is more than we can say for last year! – and it just seems to be a responsive and reliable package. My final day in the car – with the aero package we plan to run next weekend – also felt good: the car was a useful step forward,” revealed the winner of 17 grands prix.
“Of course, we haven’t tested it in competition yet, but there’s plenty to feel optimistic about. It’s a bit weird to have driven the car for a whole month and still not done a really fast lap – I guess we’ll really find the limit next Saturday. Obviously, this is always the time of year when you’re feeling positive, but we’ve got plenty to look forward to. I’m going to get off the plane in Australia with a big smile on my face,” said Hamilton who will be making his 91st Formula 1 start next Sunday.
As for the aims at the season opener, “It’s a realistic aim: to score some useful points and use the race to kickstart our challenge for the world championship. That might sound like we’re aiming low – we’re not – but, at this time of year, it’s good to remember that it’s going to be a very long season.”
“There’s no point putting all your eggs in one basket – I’d love to win in Melbourne, sure, but there are 19 races afterwards, so it’ll be important to get some points on the board. As long as I can leave Australia feeling confident that we have a car that’s able to fight for the title, then I’ll feel happy. It’s as simple as that,” concluded Hamilton.