20 January 2010
Herbert: McLaren could be Button's best chance of defending title
Former British Grand Prix winner Johnny Herbert gives Jenson Button a welcome vote of confidence ahead of F1 2010 - acknowledging that it will be no mean feat to successfully take on and beat Lewis Hamilton at McLaren-Mercedes, but insisting that the reigning world champion can do it
Swimming against the general tide of opinion on the matter within the grand prix paddock, Johnny Herbert has claimed that McLaren-Mercedes could just give Jenson Button his best chance of successfully defending his hard-fought drivers' world championship crown in F1 2010 – provided he is mentally tough enough to cope with team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
The argument goes that in audaciously – if not foolishly – entering the lion's den in switching camps to join a team that Hamilton has all-but made his own since first being snapped up as a nine-year-old karting hope back in the mid-1990s, the Frome-born ace is effectively offering himself up as a feast.
If a driver of the calibre of double world champion Fernando Alonso – widely-held to be the most complete all-round package in F1 – was unable to handle Hamilton as a rookie three years ago, then Button, with just seven grand prix wins to his name from 170 starts at the highest level and facing a far more established adversary than did the Spaniard, has scarcely a cat-in-hell's chance of doing so, they say. Perhaps, acknowledges three-time grand prix-winner Herbert – but then equally perhaps not.
“It was a difficult situation for him,” he told Crash.net Radio, reflecting on the set of circumstances that conspired to result in Button's move away from Brawn – now Mercedes Grand Prix – to join his compatriot and title-winning predecessor at McLaren. “There didn't seem to be any budging on the salary that they (Brawn) were offering him, and as a world champion it was, you could argue, a low offer as far as I'm aware. I don't know what's going on within the team – there is the Mercedes link now as well – but obviously Jenson knew what developments were going on.
“He's moving from his team effectively to Lewis' team in one regard. Lewis has been there 14 years or so now, and Fernando was probably a bit naïve about it I think when he went in thinking 'oh, he's just a young rookie coming in, I'm double world champion, no problem' – but he saw how tough Lewis was. Jenson's got to go in there and probably has to be even tougher, but that mental thing is going to be hard because Lewis has been there for so long and knows everybody so, so well.
“That's why we see the Lewis we see today, because there is such a close-knit community between him and the team and that's why it works. Of course he does the job too, but for someone to come in I think is very, very hard; we've seen it with the Sennas of the past, the Schumachers of the past.
“Jenson has won his world championship, so the pressure's off him in one regard because he's achieved – but the pressure's there in another way because he's going there as the world champion against Lewis. It's less pressure I think than actually winning a championship, so it will be an interesting one and I think it will be good for him.
“If he can get in there and really make his point and do well with the unfortunately limited testing that they get and push very early on, then the pressure can actually be pushed straight across. Generally I think, from what I've read, most people are [tipping] Lewis, which I can understand because of what Lewis has done – but I think that's unfair on Jenson. It will be very tough, but I know McLaren do it very fairly with the product that they give both drivers, so it will be tough for Lewis as well – it's not going to be just one way.”
Those who are writing Button off before he has even so much as turned a wheel in the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-25, Herbert opines, are probably the same critics who suggested he was not worthy of the ultimate trophy last year, having failed to mount the top step of the rostrum from Istanbul in early June onwards, and indeed struggling to reach any step of the podium at all until the Abu Dhabi season finale almost five months later. That, the Team Dynamics BTCC star contends, is to do the recently-turned 30-year-old a grave disservice.
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