The much-hyped internecine scrap at McLaren-Mercedes in F1 2010 will ultimately be determined by the supremacy of either Lewis Hamilton's greater raw pace or compatriot Jenson Button's superior tyre-management skills, reckons former grand prix ace Mark Blundell.
Many have contended that Hamilton – as the longstanding incumbent at Woking and a driver that some surmise the team is to all intents and purposes focussed around – will simply chew his new team-mate up and spit him out for having had the brazen audacity to enter the lion's den in the misguided belief that he can slay its inhabitant. Button might be number one in name as the defending world champion, the detractors concede, but his title-winning predecessor Hamilton will rapidly demonstrate who is boss.
Then there is the counter-argument, the one that points to the ban on refuelling favouring drivers with a smoother style behind the wheel and an easier manner on the tyres, seeing as pit-stops will now be necessary only to bolt on new rubber – meaning the better you are at looking after your tyres, the fewer stops you will likely have to make. Button has always been highly-regarded in this aspect, the more aggressive Hamilton somewhat less so.
Ultimately, Blundell opines, the duel will boil down to whether the 2009 world champion's defter touch is enough to overcome the 2008 title-winner's scintillating innate speed – and the former Brabham, Ligier, Tyrrell and McLaren star suggests it might fall just short.
“I think it's a very big challenge,” he told Crash.net Radio
of Button's bold close-season move from Brawn GP – now Mercedes Grand Prix – to McLaren. “You've got to take on-board that Lewis has been at McLaren since he was some eleven years-of-age; he's home-grown basically, so Jenson is putting himself up against that.
“Sometimes it's quite difficult to beat home-grown; you're a different product coming in and sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get settled, but Jenson is a great talent – we've seen that now, we know what he's got and we know what he's capable of – and he goes there with the number '1' plate on the front of his car, so in many ways [Hamilton] will have to live up to that.
“I think you've got to take on-board the smoothness, but you've got to understand whether that is of big benefit when it comes to tyre-management. Ultimately I think it will be, but at the same time you've got to consider that raw pace is still the big deal – and I think Lewis Hamilton has got that every lap of a grand prix. If that raw pace is stronger than some tyre-management over the course of a [race] distance, he's still going to come out on top.”
So much for the inter-team rivalry at McLaren, but if either Button or Hamilton is to keep the drivers' crown in Britain for a third consecutive campaign for the first time in more than four decades, they will have to defeat not only each other, but also the likes of double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa at Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing and Nico Rosberg and returning grand prix legend Michael Schumacher at Mercedes – in what is being billed as the top flight's most fiercely-competitive and unpredictable season in years. No mean feat, Blundell acknowledges.
“I'm sure he's still got it,” the 43-year-old mused of 91-time grand prix-winner Schumacher, by far and away the most successful driver in F1 history. “He's still young enough and he's still fit enough – the biggest thing is whether he's got the car. Like all the guys out there, if they don't have the equipment it doesn't mean that they can overdrive it to make up the difference.
“I think there will be a little bit of race-rustiness, but I think overall he's going to fit in pretty quickly. Grand prix drivers and racing drivers in general adapt – that's what they're all about – so it won't take him long. If the Mercedes is a great car that follows on from last season, then he's got every possibility of winning grands prix – but I don't think too much of it will be down to him...it will be down to what he's driving.
“I don't think [Massa] is going to be worried about taking on Alonso – he took Schumacher on for a year as well. Getting back from his injury, I would have said that he's up-to-speed by now. Obviously he's still going to be lacking a bit in F1 miles in recent times, but I don't think there will be any big problem for Massa.
“It would be great for the championship to see [Red Bull] right up in the thick of things, too. They left it late before launching the RB6, but all these teams seem to leave things later and later as it goes on; they always try to get the last little bit of modification and development in. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't.
“I think it's a great season ahead of us with the driver and car combinations that we have – you have to be looking forward to it. Alonso in a Ferrari, Vettel in a Red Bull, Button and Hamilton at McLaren and Schumacher at Mercedes – I don't think we've seen something like this for the last ten years.”
Musing that F1 has 'probably seen the last of' World Rally Championship (WRC) convert Kimi Raikkonen provided the Finn 'gets stuck in and it takes his focus and he enjoys it' in his new endeavour with the Citroën Junior Team, Blundell confessed that whilst rallying might be 'a different kettle of fish', it is nonetheless 'some of the best driving I've ever done in my life'.
The Englishman went on to reveal that he is intrigued to see if newcomers Lotus, Virgin and Hispania 'can actually produce some results on much lower budgets than the big boys', before adding finally that if given £100 to wager on the destiny of the 2010 world championship laurels, he would hedge his bets.
“I'd spread it,” he smiled, “and put £50 on Lewis and £50 on Vettel...”TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE