James Lawton: Dynamic duo are heading for bitter battle to the end
Who will be No 1 at McLaren? Who is the thoroughbred - and who will be the donkey?
Thursday 19 November 2009
You wouldn't want to dampen any national fervour surrounding the first British one-two champion Formula One combination since Graham Hill and Jim Clark drove for Lotus in 1968 – especially when the new McLaren team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button stopped short yesterday only at nicking their fingers and announcing themselves official blood brothers.
It's a thrilling scenario that has the No 1 drivers of 2008 and 2009 duelling hand-to-hand in cars of beautifully engineered parity. But who really thinks that in grand prix racing, of all places, we might just be seeing a perfectly restored concept of pure racing?
Certainly we haven't enjoyed too much recent schooling in the idea that such a possibility was on the horizon – not at any point, you have to say, since the late James Hunt more than three decades ago declared that the contribution of a driver to grand prix success had been reduced to around 10 per cent and was going down a little more with each new engineering or aero-dynamic wrinkle. Nor did Sir Frank Williams more recently strike a blow for competitive independence in the cockpit when he declared that choosing a new driver was "a bit like pinning the tail on the donkey". Now, after a few days of hectic negotiation, we are told that the idea of a level track for high-powered team-mates has finally been created. For the moment Formula One will just have to excuse a degree of pit-lane cynicism at the possibility of more smoke and more mirrors.
Let's be honest, if reigning champion Button displayed a rare amiability under the intense pressure that enveloped him in the second half of his winning season – and ultimately produced a drive of genuine authority – he is still an inhabitant of arguably the most ruthless and egocentric place in all of sport: the Formula One drivers' room.
There the unbreakable concept is that the winners are not always those who drive, as former champion Jacques Villeneuve once put it, "out on the edge, making their own rules", but are most vigorous in enforcing their rights as their team's No 1 driver – and who make most fuss at the first hint they are being compromised. Who is No 1 at McLaren? Who is the designated thoroughbred – and who is the donkey?
Is the top man Button, who finished with the champion's prize a few weeks ago in a fever of exhilaration, or the formidable "natural" racer Hamilton? The latter has always been forthright about his expectations. He wants the best possible car, the best chance of winning, and it is a privilege many feel he will be reluctant to share, in race conditions, with the man he privately believes has done not much more than borrow his title after one bizarre season.
It is an impression that can only be enhanced by the widespread belief that Hamilton and his father, Anthony, most favoured the retention of the relatively mild, and thus unthreatening Finn Heikki Kovalainen, rather than any flirting with the front-line talent – and especially the ambition of Button or the now displaced former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, who goes off to rehabilitate his ego for a season with the help of £12m worth of consolation from Ferrari.
We have been given, we are told, a battle between British equals, not withstanding the fact that Hamilton is on £15m, Button £7.5m. However, the reigning champion declares, "It's not about money." Not about money in Formula One, what then?
Once he has blown away some of the smoke, and looked a little more closely into the mirror, he might just be able to tell us. On the other hand, he might be too busy fighting for his driving life against the force and the ambition of his new blood brother.
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