Lewis Hamilton might find himself in for 'a surprise' should he quit McLaren-Mercedes for one of the team's F1 rivals in the future, Jenson Button has warned – as the 2009 world champion claimed his team-mate would likely encounter 'a very different environment' elsewhere.
Synonymous with McLaren, Hamilton's history with the Woking-based outfit stretches back more than a decade-and-a-half, and the British star has never competed for any other team since joining the grand prix grid in 2007. However, with the new MP4-26 struggling woefully during pre-season testing, rumours began to circulate around the paddock that the frustrations of an uncompetitive campaign could drive the 26-year-old elsewhere, with defending double F1 World Champions Red Bull Racing mooted as a potential destination.
Hamilton himself has been quick to quell such rumours by taking time out to re-pledge his commitment to McLaren on the eve of this weekend's F1 2011 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne [see separate story – click here
], and Button – the race-winner Down Under for the past two seasons – reckons his countryman could be in no better place for the long-term, hinting at a prolonged future of his own at the team, too.
“Lewis is going to be racing in F1 for a lot longer than I am,” the 31-year-old told reporters at Albert Park. “It's his decision, but I think he feels very much at home within this team and it might be a surprise going somewhere else. It would be a very different environment for him, but I don't think he's thinking like that (about leaving McLaren).
“I feel very at home here, but I haven't thought about that far into the future. I'm racing with one of the best teams in the world. This has to be the best place to be to fight for a world championship – I haven't doubted that. We all go through difficult times and this winter hasn't been perfect for us, but when times are tough, people always say it makes you stronger.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton – who revealed recently that his ultimate goal in the sport is to emulate the multiple title-winning exploits of the likes of Michael Schumacher, Valentino Rossi and Sébastien Loeb – has suggested that the radical changes made to the MP4-26 since the final pre-season test in Barcelona earlier this month have made 'a big improvement' to its performance.
“The car feels like an improvement over winter testing,” he acknowledged after lapping second-quickest to Button during FP2 in Australia, “but I'm not reading too much into the others' performance. We just spent the day focusing on our own programme. The tyres are behaving very well; they don't feel like they're degrading, and they're lasting well, too.
“Hopefully we can pick up some points this weekend – I feel positive. The grip level today felt like a big step forward. We don't know what fuel loads the others are running, but our car feels like a big improvement from where we were just a few weeks ago.
“That's simply a result of hard work – all the men and women back at the factory and at the track this weekend have done a fantastic job. It's difficult to gauge how different our car is, but there's more downforce, which is something we're always asking for. This is a major positive. Our initial feeling is that the car is good, but we'll need to see tomorrow – still, I think we're in the hunt for some points.”