Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Champion Versus. Champion

The news that reigning World Champion Jenson Button will be joining 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton at Mclaren to form an all-British superteam is one of many interesting prospects we can anticipate this season, a year which leaves us with very many intriguing unanswered questions. It's been more than 20 years since a team last fielded two champions alongside each other. That team was Mclaren, when it ran Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost together for a second year in 1989, after the Brazilian had wrapped up his first title.

Perhaps it was the sheer fractiousness of relations between the two champions that year which has subsequently dissuaded any other team from following suit. Certainly, Martin Whitmarsh will be hoping that history does not repeat itself for the team in 2010. It's tempting to draw parallels. I've always seen a hint of Senna in Hamilton's all-out attacking approach, and I don't think that's just my brain playing tricks on me because Lewis has copied Ayrton's distinctive yellow helmet. And as for Jenson, his smooth, unhurried style, his deceptive pace, well, that's more than a little reminiscent of a certain French driver.... In the end, though, for reasons I'll come to later, I don't think Whitmarsh et al should lose too much sleep. As a pairing, Button and Hamilton just doesn't strike me as having quite the same combustible potential as Senna and Prost did.

When Senna was hired by Mclaren in 1988 to partner their double World Champion, Prost, though, he had yet to win the first of his three titles, and was merely a promising youngster who had won six races for a Lotus team which no longer looked to be quite what it once was. You have to go back another few years to 1986 to find the last time a World Champion was hired to drive alongside another. Again, the team in question was Mclaren, and the driver line-up featured the reigning world champion, Prost, and 1982 title-winner Keke Rosberg, seen by some as the outright fastest driver in the world at the time. As it turned out, the Finn proved to be no match for Prost, who snuck between the warring Williams boys, Piquet and Mansell, to win the 1986 title in a car which was not really the equal of the Williams Honda. Rosberg, by contrast, failed even to win a race, never at home with the understeery MP4/2B.

If one wants to be really pedantic, though, one could point out that, at the time at which Mclaren signed Rosberg to drive for them in 1986, Alain Prost had not yet wrapped up the 1985 title. Yes, it seemed unlikely that Michele Alboreto would succeed in denying Prost the title yet again - after coming so close in 1982, 1983 and 1984, but it was not impossible...

No, the last time that a team made a conscious choice to hire two World Champions was all the way back in 1967, when Colin Chapman signed 1962 World Champion Graham Hill to drive alongside Lotus stalwart and double champion Jim Clark. And it's this pairing, which to me, most closely echoes Mclaren's 2009 line-up. Hamilton in the role of the supremely naturally gifted Clark, an integral part of the Mclaren team as Lotus had been built around Clark. Each seen by many as the great talent of their age. And Button? A solid, quick racing driver, comfortable in the spotlight, but whose ultimate ability, whose fitness to sit alongside the sport's real all-time greats, remains a matter of debate. The parallels with Graham Hill, whom many did not see as being in quite the same league as his Scottish contemporaries, Stewart and Clark, are certainly there. Hill and Clark didn't fall out as Prost and Senna did and perhaps in part it was because it was a more relaxed age, but I can't help thinking that fundamentally, they got on because there was no doubt as to who was quicker. And I don't necessarily see the pairing of Button and Hamilton being any different.

When Clark and Hill teamed up in 1967, it was Clark who decisively got the upper hand, winning four Grands Prix that year, while Hill managed but a solitary second place. That doesn't tell the whole picture, though, for the Lotus 49 was a fast but very fragile machine, and Hill got the lion's share of their considerable mechanical misfortune. Nonetheless, while he went on to win the 1968 title, few saw him as being truly a match for Clark.

So will Button get his comeuppance at Mclaren? Maybe. If I was a betting man, I'd certainly be putting my stake on Hamilton to win that intra-team battle. But history doesn't always repeat itself, doesn't always tell the same story. There is, I think, still a chance that Button could up-end the form book and establish himself as Mclaren's lead driver. One thing that could just tilt the odds his way is the ban on refueling. All bar Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher will have to learn for the first time what an F1 car with 180kgs of fuel onboard is like to drive, and an ability to be smooth, gentle on brakes and tyres, will pay dividends. I for one am convinced that Hamilton is an out and out faster driver than Button, but Button has a mechanical sympathy and a smooth, silky style, reminiscent of Prost or De Angelis. Will Hamilton's improvisational aggression prove too much for the tyres with a full fuel load aboard?

Another factor is that Button is coming in, not as a man who won a title five years back like Hill did, but as the current, reigning World Champion, carrying the Number 1 on his car. Among sportsmen competing at this level, it really shouldn't make a difference, but all the same, the extra self-assurance and confidence that comes from knowing that, right now, you are the World Number 1, maybe, just maybe, it can be enough to unsettle Hamilton, to leave him wondering whether he's still Mclaren's number one man. It was interesting to see veteran F1 journalist Maurice Hamilton remark on his twitter feed that Button looked much more comfortable and at home on the stage at the launch of the MP4-25 than Hamilton, and Joe Saward passed on the comment of one reader of his blog that "the body language of Hamilton and Button was interesting...there's no love lost between those two..." Another leap - it's just possible that might have a negative impact on his driving, unsettle him, lead him to over-drive as he did at Silverstone in qualifying in 2008 when Kovalainen, just for once, appeared to have the upper hand.

It's probably a forlorn hope for Jenson. Button will doubtless remember what happened the following day in the wet race at the Northamptonshire circuit. Hamilton drove perhaps the single greatest race of his career so far to win comfortably. Kovalainen was nowhere. No, the chances are, if Button wants to win back to back titles, even assuming that Mclaren can produce the car to enable him to do it, he's going to have to raise his game to a level well beyond even what was required to net him last year's championship. It's going to be interesting to see whether he can do it, and if not... If the Mclaren battle turns out to be a walkover... Well, there's a Brazilian guy been flying round Jerez teamed up with a double world champion who really doesn't take well to being beaten by his team mates. That Ferrari line-up looks very intriguing, doesn't it...

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