Button insists he can handle rivalry

Can he compete with Hamilton at McLaren? As he starts work, the champion answers his critics

Jenson Button was in cheerful mood yesterday, as befits a man starting a challenging new job. As he experienced his first proper day at work at McLaren, and took his first drive for the team that made Lewis Hamilton a champion, he insisted his surprise move had motivated him more than ever to repeat his world championship success of last year, gained with the short-lived Brawn team.

Button had his first in-depth introduction to McLaren's remarkable Sir Norman Foster-designed headquarters in Woking, Surrey, and drove last year's MP4-24 car in their simulator to get a first feel for his new berth as he starts a campaign in which he hopes to retain his crown, despite the fearsome threat posed by Hamilton.

"Maybe if I'd stayed where I was it might have been harder to go for another title because I wouldn't have been so motivated," he said. "But the move to McLaren excites me and I'm working really hard to achieve something similar this year. I'm more motivated than ever. And I'm a lot more relaxed and confident in my ability, and also in the way that I work with a team. I get to grips with that sort of thing very quickly and we'll have a lot of testing miles over the winter. That makes me feel confident too that we will be in good shape by the first race."

Button's first good look at the McLaren Technical Centre was a "real eye-opening moment," and he said: "It's a fantastic building, but it's the people within it who'll do a good car. I've been in the simulator, and already I can feel this is a great environment. The people here are itching to see what we can achieve. I think 2009 was a good year for the team despite a difficult start, and they are itching to get back to the front."

While hailing the return of the seven-times champion Michael Schumacher – who will drive for Button's old team, now rebranded as Mercedes GP – Button refused to be drawn into argument with critics, including Schumacher's former team-mate Eddie Irvine, who have suggested that Hamilton will destroy his reputation.

"First of all, I think it [Schumacher's return] is amazing for the sport," he said. "There will be four world champions racing, and that's great. It's an unusual decision by Michael to come back but he's obviously got his reasons after three years out. You've got to say fair play to Ross [Brawn] for getting him on board, because there aren't many team principals who could have persuaded him to come back. Obviously Ross is very happy, and why wouldn't he be? He's got a guy who is very competitive and it's very positive for the team. And Michael will be right there by the first race, I'm certain of that.

"As for whether I'll hand out humble pie in November, I don't think it's worth thinking or looking that far, or worrying what people say. I'm excited to be working with Lewis, and that's exactly what we have to do if we are going to be competitive. We'll have to work very close together if we hope to be fighting for the world championship. There's no use making any comment yet because we don't know if we'll be in the situation to fight for the title. I know it's going to be one hell of a challenge coming into a team in which Lewis has been for so long, but I'm confident of my own ability."

Irvine, who knows what it feels like to be dominated after being taken apart by Schumacher at Ferrari between 1996 and 1999, yesterday suggested that Button has unwisely entered the lion's den. "It was madness of him to move," Irvine told ESPN. "He thinks he's going to be able to eat his steak and that's not going to be the case. He's going to get murdered. It's the worst decision he could have made.

"The only reason I can think of is that he didn't want to stay at Brawn with [Nico] Rosberg, who's not as highly rated as Lewis but might be just as quick. Jenson may have thought that it's better to get beaten by Lewis than get beaten by Nico."

Button brushed that aside, and insists such comments don't annoy him. "Actually, that stuff makes my life a lot easier than if people say that they expect me to destroy my team-mate. I'm just going to focus on getting the best out of myself and out of the team. It's not a negative thing.

"I'm not one for answering back. Like I said, I'm confident in my own ability. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I might not agree with them, but that's it. This has always been an exciting challenge for me, and it was never going to be easy. But I don't feel that I have to prove anything to anyone. People's comments won't change anything. The only thing that changes anything is what happens on the track."

With only 15 days of official testing before the first race, in Bahrain on 14 March, he has his work cut out. "On the one hand I'm very excited about getting into the new car in February and testing hard, on the other I know there is a lot of work to be done."

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