Hamilton has hands full with Vettel

Lewis Hamilton is taking the pressure off himself ahead of the Turkish Grand Prix by playing down expectations he can beat Formula One defending champion Sebastian Vettel for a second straight race.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Lewis Hamilton is taking the pressure off himself ahead of the Turkish Grand Prix by playing down expectations he can beat Formula One defending champion Sebastian Vettel for a second straight race.

Hamilton outwitted Vettel with brilliant strategy at the Chinese Grand Prix three weeks ago, raising hopes that the Red Bull driver may be vulnerable — despite having a faster car than Hamilton’s McLaren or the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.

But Hamilton sounded less than optimistic about a repeat performance at Istanbul Park on Sunday, where he also won last year after a mishap between Vettel and his Red Bull teammate Mark Webber.

“Of course you can come from the last race and be very excited and confident going into the next race, but I don’t have particularly high hopes,” Hamilton said on Thursday. “I would prefer to arrive here cautious.”

The British driver took one more pit stop and had fresher tires in the closing stages of the race in Shanghai, enabling him to get past Vettel late in the race.

That win narrowed Vettel’s lead over Hamilton to 21 points. Vettel is 30 ahead of the Briton’s McLaren teammate, Jenson Button. Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber of Australia, is 31 back in fourth.

But Hamilton is still concerned that, if Vettel drives without any unforeseen hiccups, McLaren lacks enough pace.

“In the last race we didn’t win because we had the fastest car. We won because we generally out-drove and outdid them with strategy,” Hamilton said. “We had a good half a second that we needed to jump to catch the Red Bull. Whether we will have that half a second we will have to wait and see.”

The 2008 champion thinks Red Bull won’t suffer twice from a tactical tire error, and other drivers — having benefited from upgrades in the three weeks since Shanghai — can challenge the German driver.

“We have to assume that whatever we bring they (Red Bull) will have brought the same or similar,” Hamilton said.

“The other guys seem to be closing the gap gradually. You see Ferrari, they are always there or thereabouts and it doesn’t seem like it is going to take too much for them to make the quick switch and be right up there.”

If only Ferrari was as optimistic about its own chances.

Neither Alonso, a two-time world champion, nor Massa has managed a podium so far this season. But given recent history, Istanbul Park could be just the place to stop the drought.

“It is true I had great races here, winning three times in a row and starting from pole position all three times was a great feeling,” said Massa, who won from 2006-08. “I hope we can carry on in the same direction.”

Both Massa and Alonso are already more than 40 points behind Vettel.

“It is clear to see that we never give up, but the difference is quite big,” Massa said. “We really need to have our feet on the ground and to work to improve the car. I would say more in the qualifying.”

Another unsuccessful race will open the door for Renault to bump them even further down, with Russian driver Vitaly Petrov and Germany’s Nick Heidfeld lurking just behind in the standings, having secured one third-place finish each.

Massa, who lost the 2008 title to Hamilton by just one point, laments that Ferrari has never been in a strong position to attack, not through poor racing but bad qualifying times.

“In the race we show that we have a much more competitive car compared to the qualifying,” Massa said on Thursday. “It is important to have a good step and to be very close to fight.”

Conditions are expected to be far cooler than usual on Sunday, with tire degradation again likely to be a major factor in race strategy as there is also a chance of rainfall.

“It is going to be very, very tough this weekend, not really knowing what conditions we are going to have,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think I have been here when it is wet. I didn’t even know it rained here. This is the first time I have seen it rain, so it is going to be interesting.”

Given that Istanbul’s circuit features Turn Eight — the longest corner of the season at 640 metres — wet conditions could lead to some spectacular racing.

Hamilton thinks most teams are in the dark about what to expect from the Pirelli tires during Sunday’s race, and that this will be reflected in practice.

“I hope it dries up and we don’t have to experience that this weekend, but I am sure at some stage it is going to become quite important for strategy,” he said. “We probably won’t see too many people using the tires in practice mainly because we don’t have too many sets of the tires. It will be interesting.”