The omens are not good for Lewis Hamilton. The Formula One world champion crashed his new car in testing at the Circuit de Catalunya, near Barcelona, yesterday just hours after his team moved to quash suggestions that the machine is not quick enough to enable him to defend his title.
Hamilton lost control of his McLaren Mercedes MP4-24 at the high-speed, right-hand Turn 3 on a circuit that he and all his rivals know like the backs of their hands. The Briton appeared to run slightly wide, resulting in the car snapping into a spin and careering over the gravel into a tyre wall. However, it was only a light impact that damaged the front wing and the right-hand rear of the car.
As Hamilton climbed out and replaced his steering wheel, and then stood looking dejectedly at the car with his arms folded, who should come along to inspect the damage but Michael Schumacher, the seven-times world champion. The German, who is a consultant for Ferrari, had driven to the crash scene on the service road along the outside of the track and was clearly intent on seeing as much of the new McLaren as he could.
Hamilton was unhurt in the crash, but the car had to be loaded on to a lorry that brought it back to the McLaren pit covered in a black tarpaulin, held down in the breeze by four mechanics. As the car arrived in the pitlane, Spanish fans in the main grandstand issued a chorus of catcalls and whistles, a reminder that the Englishman is not exactly the toast of this part of the motor racing world.
The crash is Hamilton's second in pre-testing this year and comes amid rumours in the paddock that the team based in Woking, Surrey, are struggling to get the car to work as their design team had predicted, with testing time rapidly running out before the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 29.
Before yesterday's incident, Hamilton had been running consistently at the bottom of the time sheets, much as Heikki Kovalainen, his Finnish team-mate, had done on Monday and Tuesday. After completing 78 laps, he was 2 and a half seconds off the pace of the fastest car, the Brawn GP machine of Jenson Button, his fellow Briton. The word in the paddock is that the rear wing of the new car is not working properly and that changes to the front of the machine are being made to try to improve matters.
Pre-season testing, however, is a notoriously unreliable index of racing form and Ron Dennis, the McLaren chairman, was emphatic in denying that there are serious problems with the car. "Whatever performance level McLaren have today, we will be a competitive racing team," Dennis said. "That means we will be fighting for the World Championship. The objective is to go to Australia and be the most competitive car there, not to come out of every single test at the top of the time sheets. Testing is about a disciplined approach to making the car go faster and you have to ignore the performance of the other teams."
However, Dennis did admit that his team have fallen behind their own schedule in preparing the car. "We lost some time," he said. "We had a strategy for this year to leave it to the last possible moment to produce our aerodynamic package for the Australian Grand Prix. We have really only started to run the car in the last day with the Australian aero package."
Over at their arch-rivals Ferrari, the performance of the McLaren is being viewed with caution. "Apparently they have a problem," one team member said. "But it is hard to tell and maybe we will get to Melbourne and find they are in front of everyone."
While McLaren battled at one end of the pitlane, Button and his team at the other end continued to raise eyebrows by running at the front of the pack on a day when all ten Formula One teams were on the track. Most analysts had predicted that the former Honda car, rebranded Brawn GP after the management buyout led by Ross Brawn, the team principal, would be off the pace after pre-season interruptions, but it flew around the track yesterday (Wednesday), completing 130 laps. Amid much scratching of heads in the paddock, there was genuine bemusement: is the Brawn car running light or has Brawn handed Button a rocketship?