Button: I admit Lewis has been quicker – but now I'm ready to challenge
Exclusive: World champion admits to tensions with team-mate at Turkey but insists he will not be left behind
Jenson Button conceded yesterday that his team-mate Lewis Hamilton has had the edge on him during his debut season at McLaren, but insists that he has made the changes to his qualifying set-up for tomorrow's Grand Prix here that will enable him to match his title rival.
The reigning world champion has been impressed by Hamilton's speed, particularly in trying to extract a single flying lap during qualifying, when the McLaren has at times been something of a handful.
"Even if the balance of the car is not 100 per cent, Lewis can be very quick," Button said of the 2008 champion who he trails by 17 points. "I need a car that is more stable than he does. When the car isn't right it makes me work very hard as a driver to get the car I want. In that respect Lewis is very strong.
"Overall I think it's been very close with Lewis. I out-qualified him at Hockenheim and Monza, and even when I don't, within five laps I'm usually right behind him. But I am behind him, not in front. So qualifying is something that I still need to work on."
Even before second place at the Italian Grand Prix put him back into title contention, and in which the victorious Fernando Alonso said of him "Jenson was driving superb, he was not doing a single mistake," Button was his usual, calm self. The great gamble to switch to McLaren from Brawn, where he had finally won the world championship in the surprise performance of last year, has paid off.
The 30-year-old has proved to his detractors that on his day he can duke it out with Hamilton, who is second in the standings behind Mark Webber ahead of tomorrow's race. Also, the title success notwithstanding, he has proved to a new circle of team-mates in the paddock that he genuinely is the real deal. That 2009 win wasn't a fluke.
There has not been much to choose between the two McLaren drivers' individual performances, except when it comes to getting a good lap time out of a less than perfect car, in which case Hamilton has the upper hand. "I'm very happy with my races," Button said. "I don't feel that I've made any real mistakes. My weakness is in finding the balance in qualifying."
Arguably, of the five title contenders he is the one who has made the fewest mistakes. Alonso crashed embarrassingly at Monaco and Spa, and made a rookie mistake at Silverstone in passing Robert Kubica illegally and then not immediately handing the place back; Hamilton messed up at Monza; Webber in Australia and Valencia; Sebastian Vettel in Turkey, Hungary and Spa. Button, meanwhile, blessed with a silky smooth style, has kept out of trouble, and won two races, further vindicating his decision to switch teams.
"I'm very, very happy with the decision that I made," he said. "I have made a lot of wrong decisions but I'm really happy with the one to move to McLaren. With Brawn I had some of the best experiences of my life and in the end I achieved what I wanted to achieve – the world championship – and I am very happy with that.
"One of the many things that excited me was how much McLaren improved their car last year. And the challenge of McLaren was the main reason why I made the move. I have a lot of respect for Lewis as a driver, and he'd been seven years with the team. For me it was like going to a new school. But it kept me hungry."
He admitted he had to work hard in winter testing to hone a car on which he had no design influence, but added: "I've had a lot of influence on the development of the car and I have pushed that very hard. It's very important for me to have that sort of input, and at McLaren it really helps that the team listen. More than any other team, for me it's been important that when I want something done to the car, they do it."
He is also bemused about the way Brawn have slid off the pace in their new guise as Mercedes. And how slow his replacement Michael Schumacher has been. "I'm surprised that the team haven't performed better. But we all have bad years, and last year at times was very tough. Ross Brawn and Michael will strike back in 2011, I'm sure. You can never count Ross out.
"They have a different car to what we had at Brawn. Oversteer is part of racing, but I like good rear-end stability. I can't talk for Michael, but he's driven that style of pointy car for so many years, where it turns in right on the nose and the rear end is loose. So I think a different kind of car, like he's had this year, has been a shock to his system." He was not quite prepared to stick a knife into his one-time nemesis, but still wanted to be candid. "And it's harder to learn new things at 30 than at 20, or at 40 than at 30."
Much was written of the clash between Red Bull team-mates Vettel and Webber in Turkey, not so much about the wheel-rubbing between Button and Hamilton as they fought for the resultant victory. On the surface everything appeared fine, but Button admitted he was not too impressed with how Hamilton shouldered back in front going into the first corner, after losing the lead to him the previous lap. Typically, he dealt with that quickly, without the "he's loco" gestures to which an angry Vettel resorted against his team-mate. He is not the sort to bear grudges and gripes. "I'm a straightforward person, I think," he said. "I don't take any shit. I know that if something bothers me I have to get it on the table, that's important. I don't hold back and I say what things I have to say face-to-face and not through other people.
"As far as things with Lewis have been concerned this year there was only that one time, in Turkey. And I said something to him as soon as I got out of the car. We resolved those issues immediately, and we moved on." Neither will say what was said.
Their friendly rivalry has been a cornerstone of McLaren's strength this season, and it is clear from their body language that it's genuine. This is one of history's more harmonious pairings of No 1 drivers.
Button looks a calm and confident title contender. Having won last year, he knows how to win a down-to-the-wire fight. Which is why he could sympathise with Vettel's costly error in Belgium. "Skill is still an important part of the package. But it's amazing how the mental side can affect your driving. Suddenly it doesn't flow. You might feel apprehensive, or nervous, and if you haven't been in that situation before, fighting for a world championship, it can be hard to handle it.
"There are two people, as well as me, who've been there before: Lewis and Fernando. They've seen what happens. Then you have Mark and Seb. Mark will handle it, he's a pretty smart guy. I'm surprised that Seb is behind Mark. He is still a contender and there are circuits coming up that he really enjoys."
In the middle of the season, to the surprise of many, Button ended his relationship with the model Jessica Michibata. Two races later it was all on again. Button won't go into details, but said cryptically: "This [ racing] "is so much more stressful than it should be. But you do things when you are passionate. Now I am in a very happy time in my life. Both in my racing life and in my private life. But I'd be happier if I had another five points."
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