As they approach their home grand prix at Silverstone this coming weekend with the weight of a nation's hopes and expectations resting squarely upon their shoulders, the rivalry between McLaren-Mercedes F1 team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button that has 'been on simmer so far' is set to 'boil over', contends Damon Hill.
Hamilton and Button will enter the British Grand Prix separated by just six points at the head of the F1 2010 title standings, and with two triumphs apiece and five podiums each honours have been split fairly evenly to-date – certainly far more evenly than many had predicted they would be pre-season, when a number of paddock observers opined that in entering the team that Hamilton has to all intents and purposes made his own, Button was setting foot inside the lion's den and should prepare to get eaten alive.
Ex-F1 star Eddie Irvine even went as far as to suggest the reigning world champion would be 'murdered' for his foolhardy bravado, but aside from in qualifying – where Hamilton holds a six-three advantage – there has in truth been little to choose between the pair, with Button largely compensating for what he might lack in out-and-out raw pace compared to his younger countryman with an acute tactical mind, strong racecraft and brilliant opportunism and proving that he is intimidated by no-one as his feisty wheel-to-wheel tussle with his fellow Brit in Istanbul went to show. Hill reckons it is a duel that will just run and run.
“Your closest, most significant competitor is always your team-mate, and when you've got a team-mate as good as Jenson Button, nothing is a foregone conclusion,” mused the 1996 title-winner and 22-time grand prix-winner. “Lewis has the mindset of a driver for whom the normal state of affairs is him being first and the rest behind; Jenson is perhaps a little bit more opportunistic and slightly more mature and realistic about things.
“I'm really pleased for Jenson. He has obviously got enormous talent, but his career was almost derailed in the first couple of seasons after he entered F1. He is someone who really seems to be relishing having made the right decision and being in the right place – against everyone else's better judgement. He has made the right move and he has shown he has quality, and his attitude to the sport and his personality have added something to McLaren, too. They needed someone like him – someone who is laidback but at the same time seriously competitive.
“Jenson won't let Lewis get away with anything, and with two British drivers in what is possibly now the best car we are going to see a very good and fascinating battle, which is good for everyone. It's just been on simmer so far – but now it will start to boil over. This could be the beginning of the rest of the season. The preliminaries are over, and if you are not in the frame now you are running out of opportunities and it is beginning to slip through your fingers – because there's ultimately only room for one guy to win.”
That much is indisputable, and the former Williams, Arrows and Jordan ace-turned British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) President went on to concede that it is just too tight at the top in F1 this season to accurately forecast the winner of the next grand prix, let alone the destiny of the world championship laurels.
Whilst acknowledging that the likes of Hamilton and Button and Red Bull Racing duo Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber could soon find themselves fighting a war on two fronts against Fernando Alonso – who is fast becoming the chief contender for glory at Ferrari, to the detriment of Felipe Massa – Hill stresses that there will likely be no clear title favourites until the very closing races of the campaign.
“The general standard of competition in F1 with the crop of drivers we have now is unquestionably of a higher standard than it has ever been,” underlined the 49-year-old. “The professionalism out there is higher than it has ever been. They are all race-winners and potential champions that are fighting for the championship – it's never really been like that before.
“I don't think it's possible to call the championship right now. Thankfully it's all very open, which is what fans want to see. For years, you were watching knowing you could bet your house on who was going to win... I think it's too fine a margin between all the teams to be able to say it's going to be a walkover for anyone, and you can't predict how any race will pan out.
“I think from a tactical point-of-view it makes more sense to have one guy in your team [regularly] scoring more points [than the other] if you have that opportunity, but that would be jolly uninteresting for us as spectators. We want to see competition, and it's frustrating as a driver if you are competing against another team that has that [single driver focus] set-up, because you are fighting a war on two fronts – with your own team-mate and with another team. We are not in that situation yet, but it might come to that and then it gets interesting...”