Jenson Button will have to dig deep and raise his game in F1 2010 if he is to successfully get on terms with McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton and have a chance of beating his title-winning predecessor over the balance of the campaign, argues the reigning world champion's former team chief Nick Fry.
Many surmised after Button signed for McLaren in November that he was entering the lion's den in pitting himself against a fierce adversary and a driver who has been backed by the Woking-based outfit since the age of eleven – and who over the last three years has to all intents and purposes made the team his own, some would say to the exclusion of any other. Just ask Fernando Alonso.
That being so, there were predictions that the Frome-born ace would be unceremoniously eaten alive for having had the foolhardy and impudent bravado to believe that he could take Hamilton on and get the better of him in the latter's backyard – and whilst not exactly being chewed up and spat out on his debut for his new employer in the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir at the weekend, still the early signs for Button were not tremendously encouraging.
Lapping the best part of half a second slower than his team-mate in qualifying left the 30-year-old on the back foot come race day in the desert kingdom, and after finding himself snarled up in traffic for much of the afternoon, he eventually took the chequered flag a disappointing seventh. That was more than 20 seconds adrift of Hamilton, who doggedly battled his way onto the bottom step of the podium – and, painfully, similarly behind both Mercedes Grand Prix entries, one of which Button would have been sitting in had he not elected to shun general counsel and jump ship late last year. Must do better, Fry contends.
“There's clearly a gap that Jenson is going to have to close,” the Mercedes CEO told Reuters
. “It's absolutely self-evident. I'm sure he'll be looking after this weekend at what he can do to close the gap to Lewis. Lewis does have 'home team advantage' at the moment, but the longer Jenson stays with the team, the more that reason goes away.
“He'll have to be looking at all the aspects of his own performance – not only how he drives, but also the way he works with the team. Jenson will know all those things, and he's got to work hard.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, however, has defended Button's form in Bahrain, arguing that the seven-time grand prix-winner's pace was better than he had been able to show on race day – with the increased difficulties of overtaking precipitated by the refuelling ban punishing drivers harder than ever now for off-colour qualifying performances.
“I think in fairness on Saturday, Jenson was disappointed with his qualifying, and understandably,” the Englishman acknowledged. “[In the race] he didn't get the clean air; he was quicker than the Mercedes, but couldn't get past him (Michael Schumacher), just as Lewis could not get past [Nico Rosberg] earlier on.
“Lewis had a decent spell of clean air and he could demonstrate what he could do; Jenson didn't get that decent spell of clean air. It was a reasonable start, [but] I am sure we want to do better than that. We will see; going into Australia, we are hopefully going to bring a few bits to the car.”