The much-hyped internecine duel between F1's most recent two world champions and countrymen Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at McLaren-Mercedes this year resulted in a comprehensive victory for the former in the 2010 curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir at the weekend, but the defending title-winner argues that seconds out, round two in Melbourne might yet produce a different story.
Hamilton out-qualified Button by four places and to the tune of half a second around the Bahrain International Circuit in the desert kingdom – where only the latter has previously triumphed, en route
to world championship glory last year – and he went on to battle his way forcefully and impressively onto the bottom step of the rostrum 24 hours later.
His compatriot, by contrast, paid the price for his lower grid slot by becoming stuck in a processional traffic jam along with Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber – and ultimately took the chequered flag 22 seconds down on his team-mate, having never even come close to threatening the podium throughout.
Such, however, was perhaps inevitably going to be the case in the initial stages of Button's McLaren career, entering as he has done a team that to all intents and purposes Hamilton has made his own since joining the top flight with the Woking-based outfit at the beginning of 2007, and one that has supported the 2008 world champion ever since he first came to their attention as an eleven-year-old karter a decade-and-a-half ago.
Far from downcast at the outcome, the Frome-born ace insists that he knows where he needs to improve – having already admitted to being overly conservative on the tyres early on [see separate story – click here
] – and contends that the Australian Grand Prix in just under a fortnight's time could witness a turning of the tables.
“If you want to write that, you can write that,” Button told the Daily Mail
, when asked if Hamilton had won the opening salvo between the pair. “It's a fact that Lewis finished in front of me – he did a better job. Qualifying wasn't good; I made it difficult for myself – or we made it difficult for ourselves. We tried something and it wasn't the right direction. I wasn't entirely happy with the car, and we carried it over [to the grand prix itself].
“In the race I couldn't have done anything else – I was stuck in traffic. My pace was very good, but Lewis is an exceptional driver. It would be difficult for any driver to come in and be quicker than someone like Lewis, but I am working hard to improve myself in qualifying, to find a car that suits in qualifying, and I am happy with the progress I am making and the team is making – they are open, listening to everything I say.
“Set-up wise, the car was okay, but there are a few little things I need to look for to make it a little bit more my style. I am disappointed to finish seventh, but I was reasonably happy with the actual pace, so I go to Melbourne positive that I can improve myself and take steps forward. Chatting with the engineers, there are lots of ideas to help over one lap, and looking at the race pace in clear air, it was almost as quick as the Ferraris – so Melbourne might be different.”
Indeed, qualifying could take on even greater significance this season should moves not be made to facilitate overtaking, with the Bahrain Grand Prix having been widely panned as boring and monotonous, with very little action to spice up the spectacle [see separate story – click here
]. Button suggests the new ban on refuelling has served to prioritise tyre preservation over and above out-and-out raw speed.
“I tell you what, I don't know what's going to happen in the next few races, but that was pretty much what we expected,” the 30-year-old reflected. “All the cars stop at the same time and don't overtake each other. It's not like the old days when they had more fuel – we have so much more downforce. You could follow cars then, you could slide up the inside, you could race – it's very different now.
“You don't have traction; you can't exit a corner quickly. Michael [Schumacher] was weak on braking. I'd be eight car-lengths behind, catch up on him but there was no way I could go past. I don't think anyone really overtook. We might get more tyre degradation in Melbourne, [but] we need to look at different ideas of running one tyre first, one second, mix it up.”