The subtle art of joining a new team
When Lewis Hamilton moves to Mercedes he should ask Jenson Button about the best way to fit in
Sunday 07 October 2012
"You know, Mr Button, that the chances of Jenson making Formula One are very small?"
"Yes," John Button nodded.
"And you do know that he can charm the birds off the trees, don't you?"
The headmistress at the young karter's junior school was one of the first people to appreciate Jenson Button's urbanity, but certainly not the last. His ability to blend in, to smooth his path through life with charm and a commendable outward lack of aggression, have been the hallmarks of a career that took him not just to Formula One but to the World Championship in 2009, and thence to McLaren for the 2010 season.
At the time his bold decision to leave the title-winning Brawn team to go into the lair of Lewis Hamilton, and to take on head to head the fastest man in the game, was seen by many as career suicide. Rather like Hamilton's recent decision to leave the team who have nurtured him since he was a teenager for one who have only won one race in three seasons.
If Button was minded to, and if Hamilton was inclined to listen, the older Briton could give him some valuable advice on how to fit into a new milieu.
Remember what it was like when you were the new kid at school? Well, throw in the pressures associated with competition, plus the imperatives of performance and financial expectations, and you begin to see why it is never the work of a moment to integrate yourself into a new team. Especially when the first person you have to beat is your own team-mate.
"I knew, going against Lewis at McLaren, that I needed to cram a process that normally takes two years into something like two weeks," said Button.
A race team is a driver's sanctuary. The highest level in Formula One, that rare stratum occupied by the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull, is a massive commercial enterprise predicated on success and, specifically, winning. It is not a place for the faint-hearted; wallflowers need not apply.
When the drivers get out on track it is every man for himself, but before and after that it is very much a team effort. And that means establishing relationships, not just with a team's management but with the others in the team, the engineers and mechanics, the people who actually screw the cars together back at the factory, the public-relations staff, even the hospitality hosts who look after everyone on race weekends.
The management expect a big bang for their bucks and don't appreciate people who take time to get up to speed, literally and metaphorically. They want results.
The engineers are massively intelligent people who don't want somebody who can't realise on track the performance gains they spend their waking hours developing.
The mechanics never take prisoners; they don't like drivers who are slow or crash, and are quick to apply condemnatory soubriquets. One promising racer, now a winner, got saddled with the nickname Britney for his habit of flicking back his flaxen locks.
Button invested time meeting everyone at McLaren as he immersed himself in a very different culture to that in which he had thrived at Brawn. McLaren's Sir Norman Foster-designed headquarters at Woking is a metaphor for the struggle that takes place within; much of it is underground, where that fierce and relentless effort goes unseen by the outside world. Button put in the time, using the charm that his head- mistress had identified so many years earlier. He made friends and he influenced people.
And it helped that he won second time out, in Australia.
Back in 1989 Nigel Mansell had made Ferrari fall in love with him by taking a surprising victory first time out in Brazil; in 2007 and 2010 Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso likewise got their Scuderia careers off to a great start with similarly tifosi-pleasing performances.
But Mansell's relationship curdled with the arrival of Alain Prost a year later, and Raikkonen's lack of commitment in the years after his title-winning season saw him shown the door prematurely.
It's a tightrope act, forging those relationships and doing the job out on the track, especially when you are having to learn a new culture and the workings of a new car and new people. "It always helped me that McLaren listened to me right from the start," Button says. "I was always made to feel part of the team. But it still took time before I felt truly at home."
When Hamilton came into Formula One in 2007 and so spectacularly upstaged the established star, Fernando Alonso, who himself was finding his feet in a new environment, the Briton enjoyed the benefit of growing up with the McLaren team. Now he must contemplate being the new boy at Mercedes, and establishing new working relationships that will enable him to maximise his talents.
Nobody has ever summarised the pressures of racing better than the hydroplane team owner Lee Schoenith when his legendary driver, Bill Muncey, concerned about the boat they would race the following year, asked him: "Will you still love me when I'm not winning?"
"Sure," Schoenith replied. "But I'll miss you."
Sebastian Vettel's dominant pole position hung in the balance for two hours after qualifying yesterday as stewards deliberated about whether the German had impeded his title rival Fernando Alonso. Red Bull had dominated the opposition as Vettel and Mark Webber wrapped up the front row of the grid, and eventually the world champion was let off with a reprimand.
"It was a very smooth session, almost perfect," Vettel said before the investigation. "The car seemed to get better every time we went out."
Jenson Button's McLaren was a breathless third, but he drops to eighth on the grid due to a five-place penalty imposed because of a gearbox change, while team-mate Lewis Hamilton was only ninth.
Hamilton admitted: "I made a big mistake with the set-up. I had masses of understeer, then oversteer, so we went back to yesterday's set-up but it was a disaster."
Button, however, was philosophical about his grid place. "The grid penalty hurts a bit," he admitted. "Both of my Q3 laps were good, but we just weren't quick enough. I don't know where to find the missing four-tenths [of a second]. It's going to be very difficult for me tomorrow from eighth, but it'll be a race about tyre degradation and conservation, so never say never."
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