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.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.