SILVERSTONE, England (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton, Lando Norris and George Russell felt the force of the fans and were fired up by the energy bursting from the grandstands at their home British Formula One Grand Prix on Friday.
Mercedes' seven-times world champion Hamilton qualified for the new Saturday sprint, which will determine Sunday's grid, with the fastest time while McLaren's Norris was sixth and Russell eighth for Williams.
After nearly a year and a half of restrictions to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sense of relief and release.
If Hamilton started his day urging fans to keep wearing their face masks in what will be the country's biggest sporting crowd since 2019, his tone after qualifying was one of pride and gratitude.
Silverstone hosted two races last year, both behind closed doors, and the presence of large numbers of fans has been missed.
"So overwhelming," Hamilton said of his qualifying performance.
"It's been such a difficult time for everyone and we've finally got all the fans at the British Grand Prix and the desire to want to deliver for everyone is beyond belief.
"We watched the England game the other day and to see how much passion there is in England, and I know it was a difficult time for everyone but so much hope that I was hoping I could do my part..."
The last pre-pandemic race held at the circuit with spectators in 2019 saw a three-day attendance of 351,000 and 141,000 on Sunday. This year's race is sold out with similar numbers expected.
Silverstone has a large site and all those attending must either be fully vaccinated or test negative for the virus as part of the British government's pilot scheme.
Some races in the past year have had limited attendances but nothing on such a scale.
"Every lap I could see them jumping up and cheering," said Russell of the fans.
"We've not experienced that this year. We've had a year and a half without any fans at all and to come back to capacity on a Friday, it's a good feeling.
"For sure it give you lap time because you're more motivated, more excited. You've got that extra spring in your step. You feel a sense of responsibility to perform for them."
Norris agreed: "You see them standing up and cheering which is a cool feeling. It gets you pumped, it gets you motivated to try and nail your next lap or whatever.
"I think the bigger impact is going to be tomorrow, coming back into the track and seeing them all. It's just exciting."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)