THERE’S no denying the fierce rivalry and tension between Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, and that makes for a mouth-watering season
If there was a defining moment from the opening race of the Formula One season, it was not Jenson Button’s whoops of joy as he sprayed second-placed Sebastian Vettel with his winner’s magnum of champagne, it was third-placed Lewis Hamilton’s deathly stare. The Englishman may have congratulated Button on his win at Albert Park, he may have said all the right things, but to lose to his team-mate after starting on pole cut to the quick. We could almost hear Hamilton asking himself: could it possibly be that Button’s second-place finish last year, 43 points and three places ahead of Hamilton, was a taste of the future rather than an aberration?
Such a question would have seemed absurd back in 2010 when Jenson Button, fresh from limping over the finishing line to win his first world championship with Brawn GP, joined McLaren. Button had a well-worn track record of making disastrous career choices and even joked that he was entering Lewis Hamilton’s “den”. The drivers, commentators and fans, however, were virtually unanimous in their opinion that Hamilton would eat his compatriot alive.
After all, in five years in Formula One, Hamilton had never finished the season behind a team-mate, and had even bested world champion Fernando Alonso in his rookie year. Hamilton seemed to take his likely superiority as read and, for many people, it seemed less a question of whether the younger man would prevail and more of whether Button’s efforts to live with his searingly quick team-mate would provoke the sort of fireworks that characterised the last time two world champions duked it out for the McLaren team.
Comparisons with fiery Brazilian Ayrton Senna and cool-headed Frenchman Alain Prost were an easy shorthand, partly because they were so near the mark. Hamilton, still acknowledged to be the naturally fastest driver on the grid, was cast in the role of Senna – emotionally flawed, at war with authority, a man with a self-destructive streak of hauteur and a considerable conceit of himself. With his laidback bonhomie and charm, plus his professorial personality and silky-smooth driving style, Button was cast as Prost, and he certainly has the same inner steel and deeply competitive nature.
Both McLaren drivers enjoy a comparison which plays to their own perceptions of themselves. Hamilton joked that Button was being cast as “James Bond while I’m the villain”, and the older driver also enjoyed the metaphor. “I like such comparisons,” said Button. “Ayrton was perhaps quicker over a single lap, but Alain would win races because of other things. He might be quicker over a race distance, because he could look after his car and his tyres. He knew how quick you had to be to get to lap 60, when the chequered flag came out, not just until lap 30.”
Yet, instead of World War III breaking out in the McLaren pits, there has been an unexpected degree of professional courtesy between the two Englishmen. Where Alonso and Hamilton disliked each other so much that they could barely stand being in the same camera shot together, every McLaren media call featured soft-focus footage of Hamilton and Button laughing and joking. Even Hamilton eventually felt the need to ridicule these rose-tinted video love-ins. “We are just great actors,” laughed Hamilton. “We will get the Oscar next year. I am going to Bollywood – he is going to Hollywood.”
The apparent closeness of their relationship – or at least their ability to not fall out, even after Button shunted Hamilton out of the Montreal Grand Prix last year – is particularly surprising considering how emphatically Button beat Hamilton in the 2011 Drivers’ Championship. As the season wore on, Button put in one outstanding performance after another while a disconsolate Hamilton, who had never expected to come under such unrelenting pressure from his team-mate, began to feel the heat.
At one stage, team principal Martin Whitmarsh openly wondered whether Button’s consistency was getting to his team-mate, a suggestion Hamilton angrily refuted as “rubbish”. Nevertheless, nobody else seemed inclined to argue with Whitmarsh’s assessment that “the first driver you want to beat is your team-mate – they are there to beat each other and Jenson’s been on a run, so Lewis is under pressure”.
Button also endeared himself to many people in the team. McLaren’s decision to give Button a three-year contract while Hamilton’s deal runs out at the end of the year was a further, uncomfortable reminder that the newcomer has made himself very much at home in Hamilton’s den.
Button has his own theory on how he has avoided conflict with Hamilton. “We don’t spend any time together,” he said. “It’s the easiest way, really.” Button has also drawn clear lines in the sand, demanding equal resources and making it clear that he will walk away from McLaren rather than submit to team orders.
There is also another reason why the dynamic between the two drivers was always going to be fundamentally different to that between Hamilton and any other driver.
When Hamilton made his motorsport bow at the Rye House kart circuit in Hertfordshire as an eight-year-old, his role model was a lanky teenager winning every event, right up to being the youngest European Super A champion. Nor was being Hamilton’s polestar Button’s only role: when Hamilton’s father Anthony was struggling to raise enough money to fund his son’s karting career, it was John Button, Jenson’s father, who stepped in and supplied him with the engines he needed to keep competing.
As Anthony Davidson, who also competed at Rye House before going on to become Button’s test driver at Honda, says: “There is nothing to hide between them, which is why they get on so well. There can never be any bullshit when you know each other’s history inside and out. It might get a bit tense but, as far as coming to blows like Alonso and Lewis, I can’t ever see that happening.”
Indeed, if anything, Hamilton is actually trying to learn from his team-mate. Last year the conspicuously solitary driver alienated many in the team, sport and media through his argumentative, sullen and angry behaviour, not to mention crashes and penalties. His unhappiness was due in part to his split from long-distance girlfriend and Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger just before the Indian Grand Prix, and to the acrimonious split with his father and mentor Anthony, who was unceremoniously sacked by his son in 2010.
Button, by contrast, is acknowledged as extremely grounded, a man with interests outside of racing, such as triathlons and road cycling. He describes his livewire father John, who is present at all his races, as “more of a friend than a father”, and a man who can do Button’s partying for him. At races Button is always accompanied by “good friends, friends from school, plus my physio Mike Collier, or my manager Richard Goddard, dad, [Japanese model girlfriend] Jessica [Michibata] – people I know well and can trust, who will pull me back if I start to step out of line.”
The stability and calmness of Button’s life has clearly given Hamilton pause for thought. “Jenson’s done a great job to get things in the right place,” he said. “He’s got his dad who is there every single race, he’s got his management there, he’s got his friends, he’s got his girlfriend there all the time. With that he’s able to go out and perform without any worries. I did have that, and lost that happy bubble, and it is a priority for me to create that atmosphere around myself. I feel positive every time I arrive at the circuit, but subconsciously you’re perhaps less positive and less happy.”
For Button, however, true happiness would come in beating Hamilton while winning the world championship. Scorching ahead of his team-mate off the grid in Melbourne was a good start but, with 19 races to go and Malaysia favouring Hamilton, the fun and games are only just starting.