A glimpse of life in the fast lane

Is the rivalry simmering between McLaren's two golden boys? David Tremayne takes on Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton at a go-kart track – and discovers there's no such thing as a relaxed race
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The Independent Online

Jenson Button's face breaks into a vast grin, and then he chuckles: "You look like you've just driven Le Mans." We have met at the appositely-named F1 Karting, a public indoor race track in Colnbrook, Berkshire, not far from where Bruce McLaren set up shop when he launched his eponymous race team in 1964.

The world champion and Lewis Hamilton have turned up, as is so often the way with race drivers, after much of the hard work has been done. Billed as a rare chance for mere mortals to go head-to-head with Britain's golden boys of Formula One – the current and former world champions, their respective star appeals multiplied to an almost intoxicating degree as they prepare for a season together in the McLaren dream team – it's not the kind of invitation to turn down.

Already, 50 minutes of endurance racing have been, well, endured, as a prelude to an interview with the stars of the greatest superteam F1 has seen since Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill werer at Lotus in 1967, or Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at McLaren in 1988.

So my face was perhaps a bit red when I removed my helmet, but actually a 50-minute blast in a kart can feel like Le Mans, if you're not a Formula One driver. After Hamilton offers another gag (directed at my yellow overalls,"you look like a Goodwood marshal") and a metacarpal-fracturing handshake, he and Button, in their white and red McLaren-emblazoned suits, head for the karts. It is to be a three-laps-apiece burn-up, in teams, against the world's best. The difference between the two main men and the rest of those invited along for the ride is not subtle. They each exhibit minimal body movement, are not remotely concerned with macho concerns such as braking super-late, and never get the kart out of shape. They drive with their heads, with precision and delicacy – and speed, dammit – that is intensely irritating but all too illuminating. And neither of them even breaks sweat.

Button records a best of 22.8 seconds in his three practice laps. In the endurance race, my top time had been 23.88sec (second-fastest among the non-world champions, made up largely of journalists). A second off the pace doesn't sound bad, but then I had 70 lap times to choose from. Nobody seems to announce Hamilton's best time (the motor-sport world is abuzz with speculation about who will be the fastest, so no surprise that the McLaren hierarchy chose not to settle the question during a day's karting), but he and Jenson look exactly the same out there. As, apparently, they did in testing recently in Barcelona.

A lot of people are waiting for the explosion in McLaren, the outbreak of the sort of war that characterised the Senna-Prost era, or Hamilton's rookie season with Fernando Alonso as his team-mate. But you know what? One thing was crystal clear in Colnbrook: Jenson and Lewis get on. And they get on well. They're not reserved around one another, and genuine respect is evident from their body language. "We've only driven the same car, but not at the same time or on the same day," Button responds when somebody asks him how they compared during testing. "I wish I'd had another half-day with the upgrade. I only had that in the afternoon, when it was wet. But some of the ideas that I had that day were tried the next, when Lewis drove the car. I was happy with the test, but I don't think we've got the best out of the car yet."

Two months in, Button says he already knows that the move to McLaren was the right one, no matter what others thought at the time. "Change is always difficult," he says, "but it's good for us. I've got to know the engineers, and I've spent so much time in the factory, more than I ever have before. I'm really excited. Lewis and I both ask a lot and I feel totally at home after two months. He and I have had good times together when we weren't testing. We get on well and work hard together. I was there at his debriefs and he was at mine, and we are getting to understand each other's feedback. That is the key to doing well, especially at races.

"I've been testing to get the best out of myself and the car. In no way do you compare yourself to your team-mate in testing. I don't think like that. You need to be thinking how to improve the car. We both know we are extremely quick – we wouldn't have won world championships if we weren't – and we'll just see what happens after 19 races.

"I don't feel any less confident in myself having come here [to McLaren]. That's not an issue at all, but then I didn't expect it to be."

Hamilton broadly echoes Button's sentiments about their relationship: "We were never out at the same time sharing the same track conditions, so it's difficult to say who's been quicker so far.

"I never thought we'd fall out in any case, but working with Jenson is very, very easy. He's very professional and I'm blown away how polite and well-mannered he is. That shows he has good family values. I knew he was like that, but we've had the quality time together for me to see it a bit more. He does things like open doors for you ... I don't know many drivers who do that.

"F1 is the pinnacle and it's so intense, but I can't guess if we'll have a tough time. We are both professionals, and if things happen we'll deal with them. I know he's very quick. I watched his test and he's done a great job. We generally want the same thing from the car. In it, he'll push his hardest, and I will too. Out of the car, we'll be chilled."

Perhaps it also helps that they are both in settled relationships. Button is with model Jessica Michibata, Hamilton is back with Pussycat Doll leader Nicole Scherzinger, after they split temporarily earlier this year.

"I'm happier than ever," he says. "I'm in the happiest place I've been in my life. Nothing's perfect, but it's a work in progress and it's going in the right direction.

"Having a year at the back in 2009 was good experience of losing. I'm a stronger human being, a stronger man, and now I can pull away and analyse things better, then move forward.

"I feel strong – I wouldn't say comfortable – but I'm happy and when I'm happy I win races. When you are in the right mood, nothing can touch you. I just want to be able to be consistent. It won't shake my confidence if Jenson is quicker. I have lost a race to a team-mate..." He pauses. "But not a championship ... But if it does happen, I'll handle it. I look forward to the challenge. I'm not a good loser, but I believe I can be a gracious loser."

Neither, however, have any thoughts of losing. On the F1 circuit, or even here in Colnbrook as we all prepare for the sprint. Button and Hamilton spearhead a team with four fellow McLaren team members.

"It's just a kart race," somebody suggests as they excitedly discuss tactics.

"No way," Button responds, face contorting. "It's all about winning."

Hamilton, for his part, is so fired up that when it comes to his turn to replace race engineer Phil Prew he practically grabs him and throws him out of the kart. And of course, they win. The two of them stand around before the prize-giving, laughing and joking, reliving the race like it was a grand prix in which they'd somehow shared victory – something they won't be able to do when the real action starts.

On the podium, Jenson's grin is as broad as anything we saw in the first half of last year, or in Hungary back in 2006. He points to the ceiling, eyes blazing, all Austin Powers: "Yeah, baby!" They're probably the same when they're playing Monopoly.

And this is only likely to be the start. Both of them looked incredibly fit and relaxed, mentally as well as physically. Each was bubbling about the speed their McLaren MP4-25 rocket had shown in the last test in Barcelona.

"We are," Lewis says with his trademark smile, "a lot further ahead of where we were this time last year." But neither has yet figured out who will be their sternest opposition when things kick off next weekend. "On long runs, Ferrari look very good," Button offers. "I was quicker than Felipe [Massa] but we had rain on the run. My pace was reasonable and so was Lewis', but you really need to look at race pace. Qualifying? I have no clue. Almost all the teams seem to have qualified well. I think you might see some not qualify all that well, then come alive in the race."

"It's really hard," Lewis agrees. "If I'm honest I haven't seen every team. I've seen my times – and Ferrari's, Red Bull's and Mercedes'. Ferrari have been the most competitive on long runs. But in our last Sunday run we had one of the top long runs. I'd also say that Sauber could be there. And Force India look pretty quick."

Whatever happens in Bahrain, they'll deal with it. And if they aren't the fastest they'll work together until they are – and only then will they worry about sorting things out between themselves.

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