Having examined the telemetry for a whole season, Jenson Button genuinely believes Lewis Hamilton is the fastest guy in Formula 1. Understanding that he will not beat Hamilton by simply out-driving him, Button's reaction to that cold, hard reality has been to concentrate on trying to make his McLaren better than Hamilton's.
Four years ago, as teammate to Hamilton in Lewis' rookie season, Fernando Alonso was forced to look at the young Briton's telemetry traces and what he saw made no sense to him. Rather than reacting like Button and taking it on board, Alonso raged against it. He threw the weight of his two world titles around, made demands, became paranoid and withdrew emotionally from the team. It was a catastrophic reaction that damaged his career, guaranteeing two wilderness years at Renault when he could have been racking up victories and, possibly, titles.
Hamilton's fantastic core speed, the direct line he has from his spine to the car's tires, the way he can dominate any car, make it dance to his tune, is a solid brick wall. As a teammate you can either try to break through it – the failed Alonso method – or you can work out how to get around it, the Button strategy that has neither succeeded nor failed yet.
It was with the 2007 experience in mind that Martin Whitmarsh gave instructions to Hamilton and Button on the eve of last season to go off for a weekend and spend some time together. During that time, no matter how they did it, they were to agree how they were going to compete fairly and without acrimony against each other. There would be no repeat, Whitmarsh stressed, of 2007.
As it happened, he need not have worried. Button is way too relaxed a personality ever to go to war and though Hamilton has a single-minded ruthlessness, a desire always to be the best, there is no malice in him. Combine those personalities with Button's acknowledgment of Hamilton's speed and you have a big part of the most serene pairing of World Champions it's possible to imagine.
Another point to bear in mind is the circumstance of Button's 2009 title with Brawn GP. He went from staring bleakly at the end of a nine-year F1 career, having never gotten in a car remotely worthy of his talent, to sitting in the best car on the grid and winning six of the first seven races with drives so technically perfect they brought to mind the greatest days of Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell. Whatever followed would be a bonus as far as Button was concerned. A big-money, three-year contract with McLaren, a team that in the past hadn't even thought him worthy of serious consideration, was a fantastic result given what he'd faced just 12 months earlier.
All of which is not to suggest Button lacks the belief he can beat Hamilton. He did it several times last year, after all. In fact, the qualifying average between the pair – just 0.15sec, or about the same as that between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber – is far smaller than the general perception. But people hate giving up their perceptions and those surrounding Button go back years and are rooted in underestimation of how dominant the car is in the performance equation – and a lack of understanding about the influence of car traits upon individual driver performance. Button is hugely sensitive to a car's balance, Hamilton is not. Get the car exactly as Button needs it to be and he's devastatingly fast – Hamilton-fast even. Give it a bit of rear instability on corner entry and he struggles, whereas Hamilton does not.