Hamilton eyes 1st victory of season in Bahrain

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MANAMA, Bahrain (AP)

Lewis Hamilton's impressive speed in qualifying hasn't translated into victories this season, but the McLaren driver is confident heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix.

After opening the Formula One season with three straight third-place finishes, Hamilton leads the drivers' championship and has displayed a consistency that his top rivals have failed to match.

While the Briton may have been frustrated after failing to convert two pole positions into victories, he said ''finishing on the podium for the first three races has been fantastic for us.''

Bahrain organizers hope to host the race this weekend despite protests and political unrest in the area. The event was canceled last year. Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat, owns 50 percent of McLaren.

''The target every year I think is to have consistency and sometimes it just doesn't go to plan, but this year I think we've been quite fortunate,'' Hamilton said Thursday.

Hamilton, whose 2011 season was marred by several costly penalties, said his performances show that he has learned from his mistakes.

''I definitely think that the last three years have added to where I am today,'' he said. ''I think there have been a lot of lessons learned and a lot of good and bad experiences which of course definitely help you when you have a good car and when you're in a much better position.''

But the 27-year-old Hamilton said it's too early to talk up his chances of winning the championship or even his first race of the season in Bahrain on Sunday. He said plenty of teams have a chance in what is shaping up to be one of the most wide open season's in recent memory.

''You know, when you look at qualifying we're competitive there, Mercedes is now the quickest but it's quite close between a lot of the cars,'' he said. ''In the race pace, then you look at the Red Bull being very quick, the Mercedes is very quick, we are quick, even Sauber is quick. It's a real mixture at the moment and it's just about trying to stay consistent and trying to maximize every opportunity you have.''

Hamilton's biggest challengers coming into the 2012 season were expected to be two-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso. Instead, it's his teammate Jenson Button who is second in the drivers' standings followed by Alonso in third, Red Bull's Mark Webber in fourth and Vettel in fifth.

Vettel is struggling to match the success that saw him become the youngest F1 champion ever in 2010 and then win six of the eight first races in 2011.

This year, he has had only one podium finish, finishing second in Australia. He finished fifth in China after qualifying 11th and finished out of the points altogether after a collision with Narain Karthikeyan dropped him to 11th place.

Meanwhile, Alonso has said this weekend will be all about ''damage limitation'' after he struggled with his car in China. After winning the Malaysian Grand Prix, the Spaniard placed ninth in China.

Emerging from the shadows of the favorites has been Nico Rosberg, who earned his first F1 victory in China - and the first for Mercedes under its name in 57 years.

The 26-year-old German said the victory was not all that surprising to the team, which has seen steady improvement all season. But he refused to predict a second victory in a row.

''This is a track I really enjoy,'' he said. ''I've had some very good memories here but again it's just difficult to know where we're going to be exactly. In Shanghai of course we did very well, but previously we did have a few issues in the races, so it's possible it's going to be a bit more difficult here.''

Rosberg said the team had sorted out the tire issues which plagued it in Australia and Malaysia.

''The engineers and everybody have really been making some good progress on the car, setup-wise and things like that,'' Rosberg said. ''So we're learning very quickly, so it wasn't a coincidence that we were fast in Shanghai. No, we did a good job and got the best out of it but the situation could be different here with the temperatures and that might prove a little bit more of a challenge but I don't know.''

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