McLaren’s British duo know self-interest and teamwork are not mutually exclusive as they prepare for the British grand prix
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button resemble wild animals bred in captivity. We will not understand the true nature of their beings, of their relationship, until they are released into their natural habitat of wheel-to-wheel, unrelenting racing.
We may have to wait until the last corner of the final race of the season, in Abu Dhabi in November, with the championship at stake, to realise the truth, both about the essence of their driving and how they relate to each other.
Until then a lot will be written about them. Those who claim they are bosom buddies, that they are motor sport’s answer to David and Jonathan, to invoke Old Testament terms, are wrong. They do not socialise together, for each inhabits his own frenetic, high-tech bubble. And Formula One is the most self-obsessed of all sports. Yet those who represent their evident goodwill towards each other as nothing more than PR spin from their McLaren team, as some did today, are equally mendacious.
Gullible journalists, like chocolate teapots, are no use to anyone. But it is too easy to default to overcynicism, to become a little like Diogenes, the famous philosopher-cynic, who used to carry a lamp in daylight claiming he was looking for an honest man.The truth about Hamilton and Button is that they do get on remarkably well, as colleagues. Given the intensity of their business, and considering they are two of only five men who can win the world title this year, that is astonishing. But genuine.
In that regard, and in the co-operation they bring to each other and the team, they carry a huge advantage over their main rivals. At Ferrari, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa rub along OK – but only because the Spaniard is much the faster driver. If Massa suddenly started to challenge Alonso’s primacy that dynamic would change.
Mercedes continue to labour under the weight of Michael Schumacher’s colossal and misdirected ego, and if the Red Bull pair of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel really do get on there is something terribly wrong with their body language.
Red Bull convey the impression that they really want Vettel to win the championship. They cannot sell too many soft drinks on the back of an Australian who is approaching 34 and appears to be travelling down the fast straight at 200mph in the direction of middle age. In one of his last years as a Formula One driver Webber has the gold fever of a man who sees the ultimate prize and will not defer to his gifted young team-mate.
Webber, though, was wrong this week when he said the closeness between Hamilton and Button was just “smoke and mirrors” because it is nothing of the sort.
Their first real meeting, as team-mates, was at a lunch at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, on 20 January, and it was a convivial occasion. They continued to bond during testing in Spain in the weeks that followed, especially in the middle of the four-day sessions when they had the chance to speak to each other, as they did during promotions.
“The interesting thing,” someone close to both men said today, “is that Jenson is incredibly relaxed and he gave Lewis something, which was the ability to feel comfortable with his team-mate.” Hamilton, although more insular by nature, returned the favour by helping Button ease into the McLaren team so quickly that the world champion won two of this season’s first four races.
Button is the second champion to have driven alongside Hamilton. In 2007, Hamilton’s first season, it was Alonso, who had won the title in both previous seasons with Renault. Their relationship was always difficult and the British driver’s precocious brilliance ultimately drove the Spaniard from the McLaren team.
This time is different, although judging by the glibness with which they responded to questions yesterday both Button and Hamilton are tired of questions about their relationship. But as they josh around the planet together it is obvious that these men are comfortable in each other’s company. That does not mean they don’t pace their homes in Switzerland and Guernsey plotting how to beat each other.
What happens if they qualify one and two tomorrow and arrive at the first corner together on Sunday? “Do what comes naturally,” Button said, with a smile and a shrug.
It helps that both are world champions with little to prove. It helps, too, that they are not the only two fighting for the title. Button, though, has still to show his worth at Silverstone, where he has never been on the podium; Hamilton won here in 2008.
“I need to start further forward if I want to win my home grand prix,” Button said today. “Qualifying right at the front is going to be key around here. It’s difficult to overtake, very like Valencia. I’d love to come away with a win here. Maybe it’s different with Lewis because he’s has won here. That’s the one thing that he’s definitely got on me. We’ve both won Monaco and both won the world champs but he’s won his home grand prix.”
Hamilton said: “It’s a special time in motor sport because it’s the best racing we have seen for a while and it’s a really good championship. It’s a special time every time we’ve had a British world champion. But we try to represent our country in the best way possible. I don’t see I’m here to win over the crowd, I’m here to win the world championship.”
At the halfway point of the season, however, this compelling narrative still has months to unfold.