VALENCIA, Spain, June 23, 2012 (AFP) - Lewis Hamilton was 'really surprised' by the pace of his McLaren car after securing second place on the grid during Saturday's qualifying for Sunday's European Grand Prix.
The 27-year-old and current drivers' championship leader struggled to match the pace of the frontrunners during practice on Friday and thought he would be starting further down the field.
However, the 2008 champion's best lap time of one minute 38.410 seconds, despite being almost four tenths of a second slower than pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel, was enough to edge out third-fastest Pastor Maldonado of Williams and secure a front row start at the Valencia track.
"I expected to be a lot further back," he said, "we struggled all weekend and into qualifying I had to make some guesses as to what set-up I wanted, and it seems to work.
"I'm really, really surprised. The guys did a great job to get me a good lap and the car felt pretty good. The gap is still quite big so it will be quite a tough race tomorrow as always."
Although Hamilton will be hoping to overhaul Vettel during Sunday's race and take the victory as he did in Canada two weeks ago, the Englishman is expecting fierce competition from Lotus drivers Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen, who will start fourth and fifth.
"The Lotuses look massively competitive," he added, "I think they are going to be the ones to watch out for tomorrow.
In contrast, his McLaren team-mate and compatriot Jenson Button was not in the best of spirits after another disappointing qualifying performance.
The 2009 champion looked set for a strong performance after setting the pace in final practice, but struggled with his brake balance in the final qualifying session and wound up ninth fastest.
To make matters worse, the 32-year-old, who had hoped to revive his title bid with a strong result this weekend, was left feeling pessimistic and does not believe he will have many chances to move up the field during the race.
"We're in Valencia, not a lot happens here in the race," he said, "you can't overtake round here. I think if you get it right on the strategy, maybe, but the way the tyres seem to hold on for most people, it's not going to be the most exciting race.
"It's going to be difficult. It's not a place that's famous for its fantastic overtaking manoeuvres. There's only one DRS zone as well this year. I think we're pretty much stuck with what we've got at the moment."