Lewis Hamilton had a unique experience as McLaren launched their startlingly innovative 2010 challenger at Vodafone's headquarters yesterday: he found himself upstaged by a team-mate.
The forthcoming title fight between the 2008 world champion and his successor Jenson Button, the new boy in the superteam which made history by becoming the first ever to hire two back-to-back champions, is one of the highlights of what promises to be a dramatic Formula One season. And as both men admitted that they had "never been so excited" at the prospects for the year, Button was the man in the limelight who was asked the most questions. Hamilton, said to be fitter than ever by team insiders, smiled quietly, apparently unfazed by the switch in his habitual role as media favourite.
And well he might be, for it was he who suggested to team principal Martin Whitmarsh that they consider Button as his new partner.
"I called Martin sometime late last year – I can't remember exactly when – and asked whether he was considering Jenson," Hamilton said.
Button, meanwhile, revealed that he had quizzed Hamilton about McLaren as early as the Brazilian GP last year, just before clinching his title. "I was just interested," he said quickly, "just being nosey. I didn't think for a minute then that I'd be changing teams."
Whitmarsh later confirmed: "As we evaluated the driver market, which we did over a number of weeks, Lewis was consistently positive about Jenson. As I think was clear today, they have a high regard for each other and are already getting on well."
Indeed so. That was crystal clear all through the four-hour presentation of the dramatic-looking new McLaren MP4-25, which would not look out of place on the lunar landscape of the Bonneville Salt Flats, but so it was when Hamilton was introduced as Fernando Alonso's partner at McLaren back in 2007, and we all know what happened then.
Button and Hamilton dined together on Thursday night in the restaurant of the Vineyard Hotel in Newbury – and each was at pains to compliment the other.
"Why did I suggest Jenson?" Hamilton asked. "Because he was the best driver there was and I want the best possible team-mate. When I win I want him to be second, and when he wins I want to be second. I can't win the constructors' championship on my own."
But when asked whether he would wipe the floor with Button, as some suggest, Hamilton looked genuinely affronted. "I don't think you wipe the floor with anyone. Jenson is the reigning world champion, but your team-mate should never be your target. I want to beat everyone out there. I want to be at the front."
Button said he was raring to go, and looked completely relaxed, determined to disprove those who suggest he only won the 2009 title because he had the best car.
"Nobody ever won the world championship without a car capable of winning," he said. "We don't want to get too carried away yet. But I'm excited, the most excited I've ever been coming into a season. It's a massive challenge for me and one I'm really looking forward to.
"You know, today is the first time in my career I've ever seen a car with my name and the No 1 on it, because when I've won championships before I've either moved teams the next year or changed categories. It's a buzz."
Whether the cordiality and mutual respect endure will be one of the keys to the 2010 season. One of them will come out behind the other over the 19 races, and as Hamilton remarked, "Who is a good loser? All I know is that we have to work together if we are going to keep improving the car, but I guess there'll come a time when we need to sit down and work out a framework by which to resolve any arguments that arise. But the chemistry between Jenson and I is completely different to how it's been in the past." He was, of course, alluding to his toxic relationship with Alonso.
Next Tuesday Hamilton will be the first to try the new car, after it has been shaken down on Monday by test driver Gary Paffett, and Button gets his go on Wednesday. "It is so important for us to be working together as a team or you won't get a British world champion at the end of the year," Button insisted. "We have so much experience of working in F1, we've both been in different situations. You see at the end of the year what happens, and who did a better job after those 19 races. There is no use thinking that far into the future, it will be a big mistake. You have to think of now and how we make this car as quick as we can."Reuse content