There is an upside of that over-sensitivity, however. Jenson is much more attuned to the car's dynamics and, precisely because it's so crucial to his performance, over the years he's spent much more time analyzing what the car is doing and how it might be changed. Hamilton spends relatively little time thinking in depth about how the car works – beyond the “give me more grip and I'll go faster” approach – because he knows he'll always adapt. For example, in qualifying at Bahrain last year, a sudden 90-degree change in wind direction gave the McLaren a sudden spike reduction in front downforce. Button instantly felt it and, worried there could be a problem in the front suspension, proceeded carefully for a couple turns. Hamilton felt nothing.
“We could see from the data exactly what had happened,” said engineering chief Paddy Lowe. “The wind had completely changed direction and, as the car was crossing over it into the turn, there was a drastic but very brief reduction in front downforce. It happened on both cars and completely spooked Jenson; Lewis didn't even notice.”
That's both a strength and a weakness of Hamilton's – and that's where Button sees he can compete. He joined McLaren last year with the MP4-25 already completed. At the most basic level, it didn't fit him – he was always too high up in the cockpit. Beyond that, it wasn't a bad car but it had traits he was never comfortable with, that could be tuned around but not tuned out. As he sought to bring it more into line with how he likes to drive, so the McLaren engineers quickly realized it was a development path very beneficial to the car in general – and that Hamilton was benefiting from it too. They began to be guided by Jenson and it was probably significant that any time there was a divergence of opinion on the best way forward with the car after Friday practice, it was Button's lead they followed, not Hamilton's. It happened with the front-wing choice in Turkey and the choice of floor at Silverstone. The one time they were allowed to plow their own separate furrows, at Monza, Button's choice was much more effective.
Button's cool, analytical trait also works to his advantage when there are calls to be made from the cockpit. That's how he won in Australia and China last year, races where Hamilton's high-octane, thrilling style left no room for analysis, left him asking the team to make calls he should have been better placed to make. But there are probably more circumstances where Hamilton's uncomplicated visceral genius will get the job done better than Button's sensitive cerebral approach.
But combine these two skill sets – and the exceptionally high natural talent each has – and you have one fantastic driver lineup, covering all frequencies on a race weekend's radar. When you then factor in that they actually work well together, even enjoy each other's company, it's almost too good to be true, and rival teams are just waiting for it to blow up into acrimony.
This year's MP4-26 has been conceived with Button's input and around his taller dimensions, so there's no reason why he shouldn't, on average, be closer to Hamilton than was the case last year. It might also be that the very delicate rear Pirellis play more readily into Button's hands than Hamilton's. If the car is good enough to allow all this to unfold at or near the front, might the team harmony receive some collateral damage? There was only one brief hint of it last year – and it came in Turkey as they fought for the lead. Lewis thought he'd been tricked, Jenson couldn't understand why Lewis had backed off way more than they'd been asked to. Jenson put a beautifully savvy and subtle pass on his teammate, Lewis reacted with an all-out red-mist retaliatory dive past under braking. (ABOVE) It was brief but electrifying – and was then called off by the team!
That, perhaps, is how it would be if ever it ignited. But you sense it would take more than just a competitive car to do that. There would need to be a feeling of injustice – and McLaren, under Whitmarsh's watch, is impeccably fair.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the April 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.