SHANGHAI, China – Lewis Hamilton is hoping his McLaren will be quick enough to compete for victory at the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend despite receiving a five-place grid penalty for needing to change his gearbox.
Hamilton showed that his car has plenty of pace by winning back-to-back poles at the Australian and Malaysian GPs to start the Formula One season. However, the highest he can now start in Sunday's Chinese GP is sixth.
"Of course, it's not the nicest thing to hear that we've got a problem, but what you do you just take it on the chin," Hamilton said Thursday. "We're still here, we've still got a great chance to win."
Hamilton said his team discovered the gearbox problem in the last couple of days.
"When I was a kid I always used to like coming from the back of the grid," Hamilton said. "I'll be five places back from wherever I qualify. That means I'm going to have to have a good race with a few people to fight for position."
McLaren's confidence is still high after securing three podium finishes in the first two races of the season, with Jenson Button capturing the Australian GP and Hamilton twice finishing in third.
McLaren's strong start suggests it has closed the gap with Red Bull, the dominant team last year, and that 2012 could be a more competitive season.
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, the defending champion, acknowledged as much.
"If you look so far, I think McLaren is the strongest car. In Australia, they were pretty dominant," he said. "It has only been two races, so I think we need a little bit more to judge the season, but it looks to be quite tight with many good cars, many drivers close to each other."
Vettel finished second in Melbourne and was out of the points at Sepang after colliding with Narain Karthikeyan with nine laps to go.
He said his team will have to work out some issues with its car if he's going to return to his form of last year.
"I think generally there's not a fundamental problem with the car," he said. "The problem that we have at this stage, I think, is that the balance of the car doesn't seem to be as good as it was last year.
"It has nothing to do with grip, grip level or downforce level, it's more getting the entire car to work as a whole. I think that's where we're trying to understand and improve."
The other team that could be a factor this weekend is a resurgent Ferrari, which is still riding high off Fernando Alonso's surprise victory at the Malaysian GP.
The Ferrari team had looked to be in crisis following a poor offseason and the continuing struggles of Alonso's teammate, Felipe Massa, who has yet to finish in the top 10 this season. There has been speculation the team is preparing to fire him, with Sauber driver Sergio Perez being named as a possible replacement.
Alonso tried to play down the team's chances in Shanghai, saying his victory at Sepang had as much to do with luck as it did strategy.
"It's always a factor that we always seem to forget is there," he said. "I remember in Australia we had a great team effort from everybody there, a good strategy, pit stops, etc., but we also had some luck to get the fifth result and in Malaysia we had the same."
Alonso may also be hoping for weekend storms after driving so skillfully in the tropical downpours in Malaysia.
"In a wet race, we can lose a couple of points or we can win a lot more," he said. "Maybe the risk of a wet race can be good for us at the moment because in normal conditions, we are not as fast as we expected."