Regardless of the driver or team you support, we are all eagerly anticipating to see how well current World Champion Jenson Button fares against the previous World Champion Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, a team he has made his own. However, McLaren is somewhat unique amongst F1 teams in wanting to have 2 top drivers in their cars and have a philosophy of providing equal equipment and not favouring any driver. Although they are probably the team best able to do this, there is much debate as to whether they have been able to achieve this in practice, especially when Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna raced together for them in 1988-89, two drivers who share very comparable driving styles to Button and Hamilton.
Alain Prost and Jenson Button drive their cars in a very similar way. They both have a very smooth driving style with seemingly gentle inputs to steering, acceleration and braking. The result is that they are quick, but they don’t look quick. In contrast, Lewis Hamilton has a similar approach to his idol, Aryton Senna, in that they are more comfortable in a tail happy/oversteering car and in being this way, they look quick and aggressive.
Prost and Button are both good when the car is working well and when it is set up to their liking they can be unbeatable. The difference between Prost and Button, although it could be proved in the future otherwise, is that Prost, ‘The Professor’, was a master at setting up a F1 car. Button is not quite so adept in this area and it is known that he copied set ups from the more experienced Barrichello.
Senna was also known to copy set ups from the more experienced Prost, but I wonder whether we will see Hamilton copying Button in 2010? Like Senna, Hamilton is able to make the best of whatever car he has and at the beginning of 2009 when the McLaren was just plain awful, the difference between his pace and his teammate Heikki Kovalainen was quite staggering. On the days when the McLaren is not set up well, Hamilton will do better than Button as Senna did with Prost.
With the banning of refuelling for 2010 and a greater emphasis on tyre management, the similarity of Prost and Button will become more apparent. Prost was highly skilled at looking after and maximising his tyres during a race and would often seem slow and a little off the pace at the beginning of a Grand Prix only to speed up later on and carve his way through the field. Button, I am sure, will follow a similar approach. This is not to say that Senna or Hamilton cannot manage their tyres well, it is just that Prost and Button are better, respectively.
In terms of consistency, the drivers also have strong similarities with their counterparts from 20 years ago. Alain Prost was a very consistent driver who thought in terms of championships rather than risking everything to win every race. In 1988 Senna was World Champion, but Prost actually scored more points that year but the rules were at that time that only the best 11 results counted. As we have seen in 2009, Button is very consistent. Apart from in Belgium when another driver, Grosjean, crashed into him, he finished in the points in every single race.
Lewis Hamilton, like his beloved Ayrton Senna, is not always the most consistent driver in terms of results. They are both consistently quick, but both have been prone to make mistakes through being too aggressive or emotional. Both could qualify very well and produce electrifying pace on a single qualifying lap, but not always able to transfer high grid positions into corresponding points. Whereas both Prost and Button can take a relatively poor grid position and gain good points from it.
Like Prost, Button has always seemed less aggressive in the car, but they both have great track records of overtaking in Formula One. Neither is flamboyant, but both are far more able in this regard then they are given credit for. Just like Prost, Button won this year’s championship by being consistently quick and being able to make passing manoeuvres when he needed to. His pass on Hamilton in Bahrain was impressive and decisive as was his many passes in Brazil.
In terms of their characters, Button and Hamilton are so not the same as Prost and Senna. The rivalry that began in 1988 at McLaren became to be one of the most intense and acrimonious rivalries ever to take place in Formula 1. The rivalry between Hamilton and Button will get intense, if both are able to perform at a similar level, but it won’t be anything as hostile and bitter as it got with Senna and Prost. Ayrton Senna was simply unique in his personality and approach and was one of the most driven sports people that ever was born and had a self-belief and conviction in his actions that was unparalleled. It was Senna’s intensity and desire to beat Prost, at any cost, that drove their rivalry into dangerous territories.
Lewis Hamilton is a very focused, determined and driven racer, but not at the same level as Senna was. His desire to beat Button will, of course, be very very strong, but it won’t be extreme, which is good, and he will be professional, cordial and he won’t try to deliberately take out Button at 180mph. Hamilton is not high maintenance like Senna was. Button is also not really that much like Prost, but both are reasonably quiet individuals. Prost was much more outspoken in the media and certainly had a reputation of being more political within a team. However, this reputation only really emerged or grew after Prost’s experiences of McLaren with Senna.
Ayrton Senna arrived at essentially Prost’s McLaren team and was able to turn the team, and particularly Honda (their engine supplier), on to his side. Honda and McLaren engineers admired and respected his way of driving and his commitment and dedication to the sport. In a reverse of the comparisons, Button is the one joining Lewis’s team and it is he who has to garner support as the new boy. McLaren are going out of their way to show neutrality and will support the driver who is the quickest. Button is already liked by Mercedes and so I don’t think he will struggle to get up to speed at ‘Hamilton’s McLaren’. Whether he will be quicker than Hamilton? Well, that is what we are all waiting to see.
I think it will be a fascinating rivalry to watch as I think Button will clearly accept that there are days that Hamilton will be quicker than him and I do not think that Hamilton will go into a flap and lose it if Button beats him. I really hope it is a close battle and is just one component of what I think is going to be an amazing 2010 F1 World Championship.