The official line is that Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton go to Bahrain for the opening grand prix of the 2010 season this weekend less concerned about beating each other than they are about confirming that their McLaren matches up to some fearsome opposition. At this stage of the season having a competitive car is crucial – as Button proved so convincingly last year. With a new scoring system meaning the difference between victory and second is seven points instead of last year's two, a strong start is even more imperative.
Be that as it may, Button and Hamilton cannot escape the fact their union has created a super-team, and a patriot's dream: Britain's two world champions at British-run McLaren. This, on paper at least, promises to be one of the great pairings in sporting history, a partnership – and rivalry – played out on the global stage, wheel to wheel, in front of millions of viewers.
Many anticipate that the ambitious pairing of two world champions will ultimately create, when things get tight between them on the race track, an Alain Prost-Ayrton Senna feud for our times, but the extraordinary relationship that lit up the early 1990s, also at McLaren, could be played out in more ways than one. The Frenchman was the master of self-control, of holding back in the early stages, preserving his tyres, then nailing it at the end of a race. Senna was less adept at that, but a brilliant overtaker. For Prost read Button, while Hamilton possesses Senna's passion for victory. Managed well, their individual attributes could be McLaren's trump cards. Uncontrolled, as with their illustrious predecessors, there may be trouble ahead.
No matter what the doomsayers believe, for the moment Hamilton and Button have genuine respect for each other and the pair are focused on extracting the best from the MP4-25, this year's car. The pair are working on adapting both hardware and strategy to the twin demands of highly competitive rivals – the likes of Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Sebastian Vettel plus, of course, the returning seven-times champion Michael Schumacher – and rule changes, principally the end of refuelling.
"The balance of the car is very different from high to low fuel loads," says Button, who will leave the grid with around 270 litres in the tank rather than last year's 80. "I'm happy with the way the car felt in testing, but it's a different way of driving than last season. It's tough on the tyres and you really have to work them in the right manner. It's important to work closely with Bridgestone. That will be the key to a good race in Bahrain."
The reigning champion predicts that while the top teams will choose similar tyre-change strategies, others could go for the unusual. "You are going to have some teams trying to stop two or three laps before their rivals so they can get out on new tyres and maybe jump them. But you'll also have teams who aren't so competitive trying crazy strategies like pitting after lap one and hoping to run to the end of the race on one set of tyres."
Button also predicts that drivers will make much more use of their adjustable front wings than in 2009, when they were first introduced. "You'll be adjusting the front wing a lot as the fuel load comes down. I think my driving style works with the new regulations. But it's a different way of driving because it's like driving at Le Mans, you really have to look after the tyres at the start of the stint. You really have to be very gentle with the car.
"Sometimes it just feels like you are driving around, instead of pushing the car, but you can still get a good lap time out of it, which I suppose is a positive. It's going to be an interesting afternoon in Bahrain. I think we are going to learn a lot there."
If Button is perceived to be the king of conservation, Hamilton's aggressive élan has made him one of the best passers in the business, and overtaking other drivers will be more important than ever now that pit stops will be so short – three to four seconds – that waiting for them in order to try and steal a place may be unworkable.
"I definitely think it's as important as ever to overtake," Hamilton says, his eyes lighting up at the prospect. "But it's going to be harder to keep the car on the track because it's a lot easier to make mistakes with the tyre performance dropping off so fast. I don't know what kind of role the pit stops are going to play this year. It's different, it's not about who goes longest, it's about who stops before the other one, to jump them."
It is not just the drivers who will think on their feet, however. Because everyone starts with the same fuel amount, strategy can only really be planned as the race develops. "All you can do is go through every scenario and be ready when you have to jump on a strategy change," says Button, "because it's really dependent on what the people around you are doing with theirs. It's going be a busy Sunday afternoon for the engineers. They have to try and read every situation."
Both drivers are cautiously optimistic that the McLaren MP4-25 will be competitive, and a cynic might suggest that since both Ferrari and Red Bull have already questioned – fruitlessly – the legality of its rear wing that it must be very competitive.
"On the first day of testing in Barcelona the car wasn't impressive, we weren't fast enough compared to the Ferraris," Hamilton admits. "But on the last day we made some improvements. On the long runs, if you look at the times, I did a race distance so you can guess what fuel load I was on and the balance of the car and the times I did were very competitive – probably the most competitive of the day. That was a big boost of confidence for me. Still, I think the Mercedes was very competitive over its long runs and so was the Ferrari."
Curiously, Schumacher's assessment of Mercedes' position has wavered back and forth, almost as if he was reprimanded behind the scenes for his candour at times and told to talk things up. But the unretired German has suggested that McLaren were the strongest in Barcelona, not that Hamilton is heading to Bahrain expecting to be the out-and-out quickest.
"I don't think we're in the strongest position. I think we're in a strong position, just as they are. But it really is impossible to say who is the fastest. You don't know what fuel loads everyone was on. We were on a decent fuel load all day on Sunday so I feel quite comfortable in our pace that day. But without doubt we have to keep pushing because I'm sure other people will come with updates for the first race."
"Our chances are good," Button agrees. "In testing the car has been running very reliably, which is always important heading into a long season. The last day I drove in the test we had a new aero package, which worked well. We go to Bahrain with a package that I feel is going to be competitive."
Button does not expect as much disparity in performance as there was last year, track to track, mainly because all the cars appear to be similarly efficient aerodynamically whereas this time last year some had double diffusers and some did not. "I think the Red Bull was extremely strong in high-speed corners, where the Brawn was not so good, but it was very good in middle- and low-speed. I don't think that's quite the case this year. There might be slight differences, but I'm not sure. In Bahrain there's not really that much high speed, especially with the new section of the circuit. We'll know more in Melbourne or maybe even the third race, in Malaysia."
Hamilton, meanwhile, tags Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, Sauber and Force India as their most likely opposition. "In terms of the drivers, you've got Felipe, Fernando, Jenson, probably Vettel and Mark Webber because obviously they've got a quick car, Michael and Nico [Rosberg]. It's really difficult to say who is the most competitive out of all of them, but at the moment the Ferrari looks the fastest, I think.
"I wouldn't say that there is any more than usual at stake, but it is a most exciting year. But then so was 2007. I had a two-time world champion at my side and I wanted to beat him – which I did. 2008 was a big year with pressure to win the world championship – which I did. It's going to be the most competitive year, but I don't think that changes a lot."
Both continue to play down the inter-team rivalry. "I'm not going to the first race with the view that if Lewis beats me I've lost, or if I beat him I've won," Button says. "It's a long, long world championship this year, and right now nobody knows who is going to be quicker. Nobody can possibly say."
Hamilton has done his own thinking about the same eventuality, the who beats whom thing, and has a succinct philosophy. "If your team-mate does a better job, you have to step back and figure out how and why. Then come back and attack harder."
Jenson or Lewis? How the paddock sees it
Johnny Herbert Grand prix winner
Lewis because he has a bigger window in his driving style. And because if needs be he can be smooth, or he can chuck the car around if necessary. Jenson is smooth too, but has a slightly narrower window.
Niki Lauda Triple world champion
One thing is clear: Lewis has the advantage as he's been in the team a long time. Jenson must get going quickly to beat him, or the team will follow Lewis as usual.
David Coulthard Grand prix winner, BBC pundit
Lewis is well established and can be expected to have the upper hand in the early season. Jenson will have to take time racing to understand the McLaren car but his strengths will come through at the end of the season
Eddie Jordan Former team owner, BBC pundit
Lewis has it all under control. It was a mistake Jenson going to McLaren and it will be at least mid-season before he comes up to the same speed and level as Lewis.Reuse content