Mar.20 (GMM) After putting his tumultuous 2011 season behind him, Lewis Hamilton has kicked off this year's world champion in downbeat mood.
The 2008 world champion had put his well-documented personal problems and on-track struggles behind him with a positive approach to his sixth season in F1.
But after his teammate Jenson Button beat him in the 2011 standings, Hamilton could not hide his disappointment on Sunday when the 2009 title winner also beat him to the first corner in Melbourne, before Button and reigning champion Sebastian Vettel filled the top two podium spots.
"I just struggled out there," confused pole-sitter Hamilton said afterwards.
David Coulthard, the former long-time McLaren driver and now paddock analyst, expressed concern about Hamilton's "striking" post-race body-language and "stony-faced" performance on the podium.
"Has it (Button's win) knocked Lewis?" he wondered in his Telegraph column.
Many in F1 are astonished by how Button, described as having entered Hamilton's "lion's den" at McLaren two years ago, is now being described by the famous British team as its title-winning hope.
"People underestimate him," said team boss Martin Whitmarsh. "He's such a calm, mature and easygoing fellow that people don't realise necessarily the hunger that's in him to compete and to win.
"He must now believe he's in a good chance of a proper title run this year and providing we can continue to improve the car, not make mistakes, be reliable there's no reason why he can't do that," he added.
On Hamilton's side of the garage, meanwhile, is a downcast driver and an expiring contract.
People don't realise necessarily the hunger that's in him to compete and to win
"On his day, Lewis is unbeatable, and yet I suspect McLaren are wondering whether or not they want to keep him, because he brings so much baggage with him," another former McLaren driver-turned commentator, Martin Brundle, told April's Motor Sport magazine.
As for Whitmarsh, McLaren's team principal insists there is no concern yet that Hamilton has already re-entered another spiral of despair so early in 2012.
Downplaying Hamilton's post-race mood in Australia, he said: "When he starts getting happy with being third, or beaten by his teammate, then he won't be the Lewis we all love and admire."