Even in his rookie campaign of top flight competition and up against a double world champion for good measure, Lewis Hamilton prevailed in the internecine battle at McLaren-Mercedes in 2007 – but on current form, he could just be set to be defeated in the title standings by his team-mate for the first time since arriving in F1.
With seven races left in F1 2011, the unpalatable truth for McLaren is that barring a miracle, neither Hamilton nor Jenson Button will be able to deny Red Bull Racing's runaway pace-setter Sebastian Vettel a second consecutive drivers' world championship crown – meaning the next-best thing is to emerge as number one inside the team, and that is a duel that the former is presently winning, at three points ahead in the title standings.
Although that gap will likely ebb-and-flow over the run-in to the end of the campaign, of more significance is the recent trend inside the team. Button has ascended the podium three times in the last six races – twice mounting the top step, in Canada and Hungary – whilst Hamilton has done so just once, when he triumphed in Germany. Button has claimed six rostrum finishes from twelve starts this year; Hamilton, only four.
The fact remains that the 2008 F1 World Champion is arguably the fastest driver in the field – and invariably faster than Button – but that speed continues to be spoiled by moments of impetuosity and ill-judgement. He could have won at both the Hungaroring and Spa-Francorchamps – but as it was, he came away with a solitary fourth place.
His team-mate, by contrast, might not be blessed with such outstanding raw pace, but his racing nous is unsurpassed. Button's victory in Hungary was perhaps his finest ever – and a result that he describes as 'a real turning-point' in his season – whilst his charge through the field from practically the back of the pack on the opening lap to third at the chequered flag in Belgium was nothing short of sublime. Yes, Hamilton was quicker on both occasions – but it was Button who came away with the trophies.
“It was probably the best weekend I have had with the team,” the 31-year-old enthused of his Spa performance. “We improved the car and in every session I felt very happy, and I could push it hard. I told the team before the race we would go for the [win] and see what happens. If I hadn't had such a bad first lap, that would have been possible...”
Whilst Hamilton has appeared restless at times in 2011 and has publicly criticised McLaren – and race stewards – on several occasions, Button has conversely been the very model of professionalism throughout, and has made no bones about where he wants to be driving next year [see separate story – click here
]. The pair's off-track traits have largely been mirrored by their on-track form – the one, unpredictable and oscillating between peerless brilliance and wanton recklessness; the other, calm and consistency personified.
Button, however, is quick to insist that upstaging Hamilton in the end-of-season points standings – he came up 26 markers adrift in 2010 – is not his priority. Be that as it may, as he professes to being 'the happiest I have been with the car' right now – whilst his countryman is palpably troubled – that is precisely what he looks to be on-course to achieve.
“You don't think of that through the season,” the 2009 title-winner stressed, quoted by The Guardian
. “You don't think about beating your team-mate, just getting points. Neither of us will remember where we finished this season if we don't win the championship. The points are not really an issue. It is who wins the championship – that's what matters. It is not proving things to anybody; it is about fighting for a world championship and if not this year, then next year.