The two McLaren drivers for 2010, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have had some revealing things to say this week as F1 gets going again after the New Year. The in house battle at McLaren will be a real talking point this year and the pair are approaching it in different ways.
Hamilton has come out strongly to challenge Fernando Alonso, who will square up to him in a Ferrari this season. If it were not for the return of Michael Schumacher, this renewal of an old and bitter rivalry would have become the leading story line of F1.
Meanwhile Button, who started work at McLaren this week having been held to his contract by Brawn and Mercedes which ran to the end of 2009, has explained a little more about the motivation for a move many in F1 are still questioning, including Sir Jackie Stewart, who this weekend raised doubts again.
Hamilton came out with his most robust statement yet about his time with Fernando Alonso at McLaren in 2007, in an interview for McLaren sponsor Johnnie Walker. Regular readers of JA on F1 will know that there is no subject which attracts more comment than Alonso’s rivalry with Hamilton this is partly driven by the difficulty of assessing which of them came out on top that year. They tied on points after Hamilton led most of the season. As Hamilton was a rookie and Alonso a two time champion, many people considered the season a win for Hamilton, but it is a very contentious subject. Hamilton has chose to open the can or worms up again to mark out his turf ahead of the season,
“My first season in Formula 1, alongside a world champion – a double world champion – and I blew him away. I beat him, ” said Hamilton.
“No-one has ever come into their first year and been at the front, let alone beat a world champion, beat the mentality and the strength that he would have had and his experience in Formula 1 already up to that point. I’m very proud that I had the experience of leading the world championship for most of the year, and it’s sickening, for sure, to think we lost it in the last couple of races.”
This coming week Hamilton will be working hard for Banco Santander, which is rebranding all its Abbey banks in the UK as Santander. Monday is D Day for the switch-over and Hamilton will be the face of the switchover. Santander has maintained a presence with McLaren this year for that very reason. But the bulk of their sponsorship budget has shifted to Ferrari, linked to Alonso’s move there.
Meanwhile Button has made the same move as Alonso and joined McLaren as world champion. In addition to the cultural issue of stepping into a team which Alonso concluded was all geared up around Hamilton, he will face a stiff driving challenge. Hamilton, with a world title himself, is more mature now than he was in 2007. So, all things considered, it is on paper a far more formidable challenge than the one Alonso thought he was facing. I’ve said it before, I think Hamilton improved a great deal as a driver in 2009 and is now far better than he was in 2007 and 2008. So the challenge for Button is very great. Will Hamilton “blow him away”?
“Maybe if I stayed where I was, “reflected Button this week in a teleconference with UK newspaper journalists, “It would have been harder to get a second title — maybe I wouldn’t have been so motivated. But moving to where I am now, I think it’s really motivated me. It is a big challenge but something that excites me and something I am going to work really hard on achieving this year.
“I’m not going to say he starts with a big advantage,” Button added. “I will say it’s all new to me with the team and I’ve got to get to know a lot of people and how they work, which is going to take a little time. Hopefully we will be ready for the first race.”
I think the key to this – and the difference from Alonso’s situation at McLaren – lies in another quote Button made during the teleconference,
“When I decided to join McLaren and partner Lewis, I knew it was not going to be easy but it is a challenge that I am very excited about. I don’t feel I need to prove anything to anyone.”
Alonso felt he had a lot to prove when he went to McLaren and still does today on the threshold of the Ferrari challenge. He said to me once that his motivation for racing in F1 is to show everyone that he is the best. That means that for as long as he races, the challenge never ends. He is a relentless competitor. Another key difference with Alonso is that Button doesn’t get phased when a team mate beats him, so he will be able to find his level at McLaren and co-exist quite happily with Hamilton.
Button is a competitor, make no mistake, his desire to challenge himself in Triathlons proves that. No-one who wants an easy life does Triathlons. But he has won his world title now and that was always the target. Now the new target is a second title, but he can afford to be calm. He has a lucrative three year contract in his pocket, which will take him through to the age of 33. Driving a McLaren he is likely to win more races and get plenty more podiums. Going up against Hamilton is brave but as long as he does his best he will emerge with honour as no-one expects him to beat Hamilton.
Alonso could never say that.