Lewis Hamilton still remembers the over-riding reaction to Jenson Button’s arrival at McLaren, his home from home since childhood. “People were saying: ‘Ah, there’s going to be a war there’,” said Hamilton last week. “That’s what people wanted, of course. But we have shown we can exist together.”
At Silverstone next weekend, Hamilton and Button will compete for popularity, grid position and, ultimately, glory at the race that matters hugely to both, the Santander British Grand Prix.
Already they have survived six months longer together than the last two world champions McLaren placed alongside one another, when the reward for Ron Dennis’s ambition to partner Ayrton Senna with Alain Prost induced civil war within the team.
After two-and-a-half years together at McLaren, Hamilton and Button are as instinctively driven and competitive as ever. But while they have homes near one another in Monaco, their lives never connect outside of business hours.
“We are good at working together but we don’t see each other away from the circuit,” admitted Button.
HAMILTON AT A CROSSROADS
Last week, they worked tirelessly together to promote McLaren’s brand ahead of a race of massive commercial importance to the team. Yet, no matter the congeniality of the rivalry Hamilton and Button have fostered against the expectations of most in the pit-lane, such harmony is under threat. For Hamilton is at a crossroads.
After the three races that flow thick and fast in July - Silverstone, Hockenheim and Budapest - Hamilton will open negotiations with McLaren to determine if he accepts a new deal or walks out of the team where he was first groomed for stardom as a karting prodigy 15 years ago.
Hamilton’s manager is Simon Fuller, battle-hardened from power struggles in Hollywood and the man behind TV show American Idol as well as David Beckham, the Spice Girls and Andy Murray. Fuller will be briefed that Red Bull, Ferrari and, perhaps, Mercedes are alert to Hamilton’s availability as those teams deal with uncertainties surrounding, respectively, Mark Webber, Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher.
Could Hamilton, who has won 18 grands prix for McLaren, imagine walking into a new garage at the start of next season? “Professional sportsmen do move teams,” he said. “Footballers do, so do racing drivers. Jenson has been with a lot of teams, for instance. It’s different when you are in one of the top teams already, though. It would be tough to do.”
Primarily, Hamilton wants what all dedicated, fast champions desire: the promise of a competitive car.
Yet, besides seeking a salary commensurate to his status as one of the three fastest drivers in the world, alongside Sebastian Vettel, winner of the past two world championships for Red Bull, and Fernando Alonso, another double world champion who, against perceived wisdom, will begin the British GP as leader of this season’s title race, Fuller will be seeking McLaren to change their culture.
Hamilton’s acrimonious year with Alonso at McLaren has been consigned to history by a new, open relationship. “Fernando has grown up, so have I,” said Hamilton. “We have good conversations. I am grateful to have respect from such a phenomenal racing driver.”
Vettel and Alonso both have fewer demands on their time than Hamilton has from McLaren, and a greater freedom to broaden their own commercial brands.
Hamilton said: “I haven’t sat down and forged all the criteria I am looking for, but probably 95 per cent is ticked off within McLaren. There could be small things, like I’d like to keep my trophies I win. But Ron’s never going to want to give them up. That’s all right, I’ll get him on the money side!”
Hamilton chuckles at the prospect of the negotiations ahead, the first since his father, Anthony, then his manager, sealed a £75m contract at the end of his first year in Formula One in 2007, which expires in December. “I think we will be talking with Martin Whitmarsh, who, in case people forget, is the boss now,” said Hamilton. “Ron will be always the guy who signed me and I expect he will have a huge impact on the discussions with Simon, but I have to respect Martin is the man who will make the decision.
“I’m sure I could call Simon now, and say: “Let’s do it right away”. But I’m not focused on the contract and I haven’t given it enough energy yet. But there’s a period coming up when I’ll be on holiday and be able to get on the phone to Simon.”
In all probability, the strategy will be designed between them in person when Hamilton is in the United States with his girlfriend, singer Nicole Scherzinger.
HAMILTON HAS A STRONG HAND
After Button’s performances last season, when he became the first team-mate to get the upper hand over him, finishing second in the championship, Hamilton arrives at Silverstone third in the championship on 88 points, 39 points ahead of Button.
“All I’m thinking of this weekend is how I can help McLaren win, how we can make this car better and how I can extract more from these intelligent people around me,” said Hamilton, who has out-qualified Button in all eight races. Only a series of mistakes by the team, costing him more than 60 points, have prevented him from having outright command of the championship.
At 32, Button is five years older than Hamilton. He is also approaching his 13th British Grand Prix without having ever made the podium.
“Lewis is the fastest team-mate I have ever had over one qualifying lap,” said Button. “I respect Lewis for what he has achieved. I respect his speed and the way he sets up a car. We’ll share information at Silverstone, as always. We always know one another’s race strategies, too.”
Button’s laid-back demeanour engenders affection, but wins in 13 grands prix reflect a sublime talent, despite a rash of poor results since starting the season with a win in Australia. “You have difficult days and the last few races have been tough,” he acknowledged. “But I know I’m doing a job most people would love to do. I’ve lived through tough times, I have lived through good times, and this is something I still love.”
At Silverstone, Button will camp out in his motorhome in a field surrounded by family, old friends from Somerset and his girlfriend, model Jessica Michibata. His only concession to the partying around him will be to wear earplugs at night.
“Staying on site reminds me of being a kid going to races and staying in a caravan,” he said. “The evenings will be relaxed but I’ll be 100 per cent focused from the moment I wake. Any British driver wants to win the British Grand Prix. It”s the trophy I want most of all.”
Hamilton and Button’s co-existence is founded on mutual respect. “Jenson is massively focused,” said Hamilton. “He’s hugely respectful when I succeed, and I am the same with him. We’ve kept that balance.”
Most of the pieces in Hamilton’s life have fallen back into place after the traumas of last season. “I don’t have any baggage holding me back any more,” he said. His relationship with his father, strained to breaking point when he dismissed him as his manager, has been repaired. “We went through a difficult time, but now we’re at a place where we are both very happy.”
Only one bit of the puzzle has still to fall into place - his future driving plans. And Button, with experience of the merry-go-round of the paddock, offered friendly advice when he said: “It’s unusual for a driver to spend all his career with the same team, but Lewis is racing for a team that has belief in him and will do everything they can to make sure he has a quick car. There aren’t many teams that listen to the drivers like McLaren do.” -Mail on Sunday