F1 2010 may still be the best part of three months away yet, but Lewis Hamilton has already triumphed in his first on-track battle with new McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Jenson Button – by pipping his compatriot and fellow world champion to the faster time around the Top Gear
Prior to appearing on the cult BBC motoring show again last weekend, Button's previous quickest effort as the 'Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car' had been 1m44.7s – but on a wet track surface, the 2009 title-winner came up just two tenths of a second short of bettering that marker in the Suzuki Liana and, rather more embarrassingly, the same deficit adrift of Hamilton's benchmark set in similar conditions.
Admitting that he had needed to adapt his driving style somewhat, Button lamented the greasy, slippery conditions with which he had been forced to contend – even if he did concede to having practised the track with his personal Bugatti Veyron in the run-up to his time trial.
In a reference to his effusive and infectious Brazilian Grand Prix celebrations, the 29-year-old also joked that 'at least I'm not singing' as he slid his way sideways around the course in a flat-out effort – but it was one that still came up three tenths shy of the best lap time achieved by an F1 driver on the programme, 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell.
The Frome-born ace also went on to chat to outspoken Top Gear
host Jeremy Clarkson about his fairytale-esque 2009 campaign, from the crushing low of Honda's sudden and unexpected withdrawal to the euphoric high of title glory at Interlagos. And as to his pre-season pay cut, well, he quipped: “Don't feel sorry for me!”
“It was difficult,” Button reflected with more than a touch of understatement. “I had just got back from Lanzarote doing some fitness training and was all ready for the new season, then I arrived at Gatwick and got a message from my manager saying 'it's over – Honda are pulling out of the sport'. That was a really difficult thing to take in, because, you know, we were going to be racing in 2009 and we were going to have a competitive car and the possibility of winning races – there was a lot of work that went into that car, and it would have been an absolute tragedy if it wasn't on the grid.
“There were 700-odd people working at the factory, and they had to scale down the team so obviously there were some redundancies which was tough, even for the people that stayed – but we all gave as much as we could and we all tried to help as much as we could. All I could do was stay focussed and try and help the team as much as I could. That's what we did, and we got through a difficult winter.
“I knew we had built a good car, because all the numbers said so in the wind tunnel, but until you actually drive it, you don't know 100 per cent. We bolted the Mercedes-Benz engine in the back – because obviously the car wasn't made for that engine – and trimmed the chassis down to make sure the gearbox just about fitted, and then went out and tested it at Barcelona.
“After five laps I really felt comfortable in the car, and I came in and said 'guys, this is alright, this is a good baseline, this feels pretty nice' – and my engineer came up to me and said 'Jenson, you are seven tenths quicker than anyone, and they've all been testing for three months'. Seven tenths in Formula 1 is massive, but at every race people were putting on big packages, so for us to try and keep that advantage was impossible.