Can Button upset the balance of power at McLaren?
19 November, 2009
Not many were expecting Jenson Button to leave the team he won the championship with, and join Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, in an unprecedented all British and all world champion line-up. That is now the reality. Daniel Chalmers investigates the implications.
Jenson’s biggest hurdle will be sitting at the other side of the garage. In Hamilton, Jenson is up against one of the fastest and highly rated drivers on the grid. McLaren is also very much Hamilton’s team.
Another key issue is that both their driving styles are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Hamilton is very aggressive whereas Button is very smooth. McLaren are more likely to have been designing a car tailor made for Hamilton’s driving style.
So Hamilton is very much the favourite but there are factors that could go in Button’s favour.
Firstly as the new world champion Button will be taking the number 1 to McLaren with him. Hamilton will have the number 2. This could give Button a slight psychological advantage.
Hamilton agrees that having the number can have a big impact on a driver: “when I first saw the number one on my car, it really meant something”
Button will step up to another level now that he is world champion, and will grow in confidence. Hamilton pointed out: “Being champion will pull you in directions that you hadn’t previously thought about”
In the rare times in his career Button has had a great car he has proved he can be as good as any driver out there. In the first 7 races of 2009 he left his nearest rivals scratching their heads. They were genuinely wondering why he was so far ahead. When his form is like that he can beat anyone. In 2010 Mclaren are heavily tipped to give him another great car.
Another strong feature of Button’s driving is his consistency. He doesn’t make many mistakes, which could prove useful against Hamilton.
We have seen Hamilton make quite a few mistakes in his career. In 2008 in particular he made silly errors. In 2009 Button didn’t make any major errors to speak of. He only failed to score once due to that first lap tangle at Spa.
If Button can continue to be this reliable he could get opportunities when Hamilton makes errors.
The re-fuelling ban will also have a major impact, and could be the biggest influence in this driver battle. In 2010 it will be more critical than ever for the drivers to conserve their tyres, particularly at the start of the race when the fuel tank is heavy. They want to be able to make as small a number of pit stops as possible.
Whilst writing his ITV-F1 column David Coulthard said: “In the days (pre-1994) when you carried your entire race fuel load on board the car, there was a much bigger role for the driver in managing the tyres and brakes”
This change will favour the drivers who are smooth, and easy on their equipment. The aggressive drivers may have to re-adapt their style to suit.
The men will be separated from the boys next season. Hamilton’s main weakness could become more exposed and bring Button’s biggest strength to the fore.
Hamilton is very often too hard on his tyres due to his aggressive driving style. This has hit him hard at Istanbul Park in Turkey which is really hard on tyres. In 2008 Bridgestone advised McLaren that Hamilton should pit 3 times such was the extent of the problem. In 2007 Hamilton suffered a puncture which was also caused by his aggressive style.
Button’s silky smooth driving style is very kind on the tyres. You hardly ever see him lock the brakes. This was one of the keys to his strong race pace in 2009, particular on the phases of the race when he was on the softer tyres.
Speaking to the daily record Sir Jackie Stewart compares Button’s style to all time great Alain Prost: “The only person I can compare him with in that respect is probably Prost. He was the epitome of a smooth, gentle driver. There were not a lot of hand movements on the steering wheel, not a lot of correcting errors. He was absolutely on top of it and not at all bullying the car, just like Jenson.”
Alain Prost was one of the best drivers when it came to driving with no refuelling. He chose the right time to conserve his car, and the right time to attack. Button could be very similar.
There is no doubt that out of the pair Hamilton has the most raw speed, but Button is a strong all-round package which could make up for that.
Even if Button stayed with Brawn (now Mercedes GP of course) he would very likely be contending the championship with Hamilton anyway. Both teams are looking very strong for next season.
So maybe part of Button’s thinking is that he knows that Hamilton is going to be a likely opponent next year, so why not go and have the same car as him, to give himself the best chance.
It also needs to be considered that Mercedes are very likely to be keen to have someone German win the championship in their own team. If Button had stayed with Mercedes GP then who would be their favourite? Probably Nico Rosberg.
In conclusion Hamilton is going to be a very difficult team mate. Hamilton will definitely start as favourite but Button has the ability to mount a serious challenge, if he can adapt the mclaren to his liking. The key thing will be for Button to build a good relationship with his engineers early on, assert himself within the team, and not give Lewis the initiative.
It’s not impossible that Button could provide Hamilton with a lot to think about.