Sir Jackie Stewart warned Jenson Button that he was entering the “lion’s den” when he first joined McLaren in 2009. This was Lewis Hamilton’s boyhood team, and the most naturally gifted young British driver in a generation was hardly likely to let his 29-year-old countryman get in the way of his title ambitions.
Three years on, however, Hamilton was the one walking out the door, to the same team that Button had left for McLaren.
“Button conquered McLaren,” former Formula One driver David Coulthard claims. “People thought he was mad when he went there, but his stock increased dramatically with how he outmanoeuvred Hamilton. Button’s the ultimate professional, the ultimate team player.”
Now the young, mercurial Hamilton is 28 himself, playing down expectations about what he can achieve with Mercedes in an unpredictable season opener at Melbourne this Sunday. Coulthard feels it’s time to reconsider who the number one British driver really is.
“On performance, Jenson is the number one British driver. Lewis has the edge in terms of outright speed, but Jenson has the vision to read races and play the long game in a way Lewis does not seem able to do,” argues the BBC pundit.
“There’s a very personal element to making a Button is better than Hamilton, says David Coulthard car go faster. You’re constantly working with engineers to develop what you need from the car. What’s in the balance of the car that stops us going two miles an hour faster? At 200mph you feel understeer – what can we do to stop that?
“Jenson went into McLaren and, using his very easygoing way of working, won the team over. He’s lower-maintenance than Hamilton. That doesn’t take away from Hamilton’s God-given genius behind the wheel, but he clearly hasn’t had his strongest seasons.”
Why did Hamilton join Mercedes? “I would strongly suspect he’s not trying to write a legacy. He’s living his life, he likes driving cars and is good at it. He’s seeking out opportunities based on potential and financial reward. I don’t think he’s sitting there thinking, ‘My goal is to be the great British achiever of Formula One’.”
“It’s inevitable that when you go from a youth training scheme to being a multimillionaire, significant changes happen. This Mercedes move will be the making of Hamilton as a man. He’s got the raw skills to win; now he’s got to show his fans he has the ultimate commitment to do so.”
Now they’re rivals, will there be any bad blood between the drivers? “I’ve met many drivers in my career. Racing drivers have an incredible ability to reset and move on. It’s an almost childlike ability. You can tell a child off and they’re upset, but one second later they’re saying to you, ‘Let’s go and do this, Daddy!’ Adults tend to hold on to grudges. But racing drivers have that capacity to fall out with someone on the race track, reset and get going again. Crash; reset; next race. This is a new season and it’s remarkable how quickly it’s forgotten.”