By David Tremayne in Melbourne
It was Niki Lauda who suggested that Jenson Button must stamp his mark on McLaren quickly if he is to avoid the team continuing solely to follow the lead of established member Lewis Hamilton. “Jenson must get going quickly to beat him,” the great Austrian suggested. “The first two or three races will confirm whether Lewis is the master of McLaren.”
Button did indeed win the Australian Grand Prix in great style, but suggestions that his performance outclassed that of his team-mate are misguided. Hamilton was left raging at his team’s decision to stop twice for tyres, but when he declared afterwards that he had driven “one of the drives of my life”, Hamilton was not wrong.
There is a school of thought that because Button took the decision to switch from intermediate tyres to slicks as early as lap six, while Hamilton waited until lap eight and later let his engineers bring him in for a second stop on the 34th lap, it in some way diminished his standing. But this is nonsense. Button made the early call because he was struggling for balance on the intermediates and losing ground hand over fist. Hamilton had already outfoxed him, and others were fast following suit. And Button was the first to admit that at first he thought he had made a colossal mistake as he encountered a soaking wet pit lane and then slid off the track as he rejoined the race.
What was good for Button was not necessarily good for Hamilton at that stage because the latter looked as strong as ever in those early stages, but circumstances subsequently played into the 2009 champion’s hands. Such is the way you play the game, and Button certainly made his own luck and then rode it for all he was worth for the rest of the race. But just because his first victory for his new team was richly deserved does not mean that Hamilton’s performance was in any way less worthy.
The 2008 champion reminded everyone that he is a racer, arguably the very best one out there, as he took scalp after scalp on his way back up the field. His driving was a breathtaking mix of raw brio and aggression and opportunism. This can only be good news for McLaren, who know they have two drivers capable of delivering the goods.
The two hardest nuts that Hamilton sought to crack – and they proved to be tough characters, not prepared to give an inch – were Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica. With each he got a strong run going on the back part of the circuit and entertained with some fabulous side-by-side motor racing, yet on each occasion he had to concede. It says as much for his racing composure that he did so rather than fall prey to the mistakes that Mark Webber made on Sunday (he shunted Hamilton, knocked his wing off, and had to pit-in, losing time) as it does for his rivals’ refusal to be cowed.
We know all about Alonso as he has proved himself time and again and has two world championships to his credit. Kubica, however, is less well known to the general public outside motor racing’s aficionados. The dark horse of the 2008 season, he is back on a roll with a revitalised Renault team who are far more about racing these days than about glamour and superficial showbiz, as they were in the days of unlamented team principal Flavio Briatore.
Before the Melbourne weekend we had Button and Hamilton, Alonso and Felipe Massa, Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and Webber. Now another potential winner must be added to the list, and that can only be to the benefit of a season that promises to leave memories of a dull Bahrain GP far, far behind.