Lewis Hamilton’s accident-prone season has cost him any realistic chance of catching Formula One’s champion-elect Sebastian Vettel. But now Hamilton, after a season peppered with incidents with other drivers and confrontations with race stewards, faces a fresh dilemma: how to emerge from the season at the end of November as the best driver at McLaren.
For the first time since he burst into Formula One in 2007 with a series of dazzling drives, Hamilton is in danger of being upstaged by his team-mate. In his brilliant rookie year he finished ahead of his deadly rival Fernando Alonso. In 2008 and 2009 Heikki Kovalainen could not get near him and in last year’s championship he dominated Button, finishing a comfortable 26 points ahead.
This year, however, Button has been the more consistent and impressive driver. Both have won twice, Hamilton in China and Germany, Button in Canada and Hungary, and both have suffered two non-finishes. But although Hamilton has often been the more impressive in qualifying, Button’s race driving has been smoother and he has appeared less agitated on and off the track.
With seven races remaining, Button’s three-point lead over his team-mate is largely meaningless though that is not the case regarding the form of the two drivers, as demonstrated at Spa-Francorchamps.
Hamilton – the faster of the two drivers and probably the purely fastest driver in F1 – admitted he was to blame and apologised to his team after crashing out following yet another mistake on Sunday, when he collided with Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, while Button swept through the field from 19th to finish third.
“It has probably been the best weekend I have had with the team,” Button said as he reflected on another deeply satisfying drive, marked by a series of eye-catching overtaking manoeuvres. “We have improved the car and in every session I felt very happy and I could push it hard. I told the team before the race we would go for the race and see what happens. If I hadn’t had such a bad first lap that would have been possible.”
Button has urged the team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, to take up the option on his contract for next year with McLaren yet to confirm he will be retained. “All he has to do is say yes, and I will say yes because I want to be here next year. It’s up to the team as to when they approach me, but for me I’m the happiest I’ve been with the car.”
Button denied that he focused on beating his more glamorous and obviously gifted stable-mate. “You don’t think of that through the season. You don’t think about beating your team-mate, just getting points. Neither of us will remember where we finished this season if we don’t win the championship.
“The points are not really an issue. It is who wins the championship with the most – that’s what matters. It is not proving things to anybody, it is about fighting for a world championship and if not this year, then next year.”
Button, however, was speaking with his tongue firmly in his cheek. First and foremost, a Formula One driver is out to beat his team-mate. Then he starts thinking about the other drivers. Button is clearly happy with McLaren while Hamilton has often looked a restless, unsettled figure this season, although remote chances of a move to Red Bull, his only realistic option, were scuppered at the weekend when Mark Webber signed a new contract with the team.
Button added: “I am the happiest I have been with the car and I am going forward. I am really enjoying racing at the moment and I am very happy with the car and I feel like I really understand the car in a race. I think that is key to getting a good end result. I am more confident now, more than I’ve ever been here. The car I really like and the direction we’ve taken with the car. Hungary was a good feeling. That was a real turning point.”
Whitmarsh admits that this year’s title is “pretty ambitious” but he is as determined as ever to push for results over the remaining races. He said: “There are seven more races and there are seven more races to win. Monza is a very different race with very low downforce. There is no reason why we can’t be competitive there and there are some more typical tracks after that and I hope we can win some of those races.
“We are working on next year’s car but probably a weakness of McLaren, and my own personal weakness, is that I don’t like not winning. I can’t help myself and I am always trying to make the car quicker. We have got to keep pushing. There are seven races left and they are seven races we can win.
“The championship looks pretty ambitious but we have got to be positive. The fans expect it. We have got put on a spectacular show. The punter that watches on television wants a great show and we are doing that now.
“In Belgium we had six performance modifications on the car. One of those came out of the development programme for next year’s car. We are always going to try and steal things from next year’s car. It is not a line you draw saying this is purely this year and on the other side of that line it is purely next year.”