Lewis Hamilton has acknowledged that he might need to adjust his driving style if he’s to keep pace with his new McLaren team mate, Jenson Button. Button is currently leading the championship race, and is the only race winner this season to have won multiple races.
When Button announced during the winter that he was leaving Brawn (now Mercedes) to join McLaren, it was widely assumed that Hamilton would have him for lunch. But that’s not that’s not what’s happened thus far. While Button hasn’t driven with as much flair as Hamilton, he’s delivered better results, and at the end of the day, it’s points that count, and nothing else.
As reported in Autosport, Hamilton said, “I do all that hard racing and don’t have the wins, while Jenson has two – which is fantastic for him. I’ve done it the hard way and he’s had the easier way.”
Easier or smarter? In his two race wins this year, at Melbourne and Shanghai, Button seems to have been an embodiment of the old adage, “Don’t work hard, work smart.” Button has made good tactical decisions, and has conducted his races in a disciplined way, and in so doing he’s come away with results.
Hamilton has demonstrated that he’s brilliant at overtaking, having successfully completed 32 successful overtaking maneuvers in four races, but he was playing catch-up much of the time, and was never in control of the races, as Button was.
On the whole, Button has shown the value of his experience. He’s no longer one of the young guns of Formula 1, he’s now a seasoned veteran with 176 races and 10 full seasons under his belt. As Alain Prost knew when he was paired with the young, brilliant Ayrton Senna at McLaren 20 years ago, racecraft is just as important as natural pace.
Hamilton went on to say, “I feel I have had great races, but [Jenson] has taken the right decisions and taken the easier route. I have had the harder route and got good results, but hopefully soon I will take the easier route and it will be a lot easier. We do both have great chance of title.”
I’m not so sure that Button would entirely agree with this characterization, i.e. that his performances at Melbourne and Shanghai were “the easier route.” I believe he worked just as hard on those days as Hamilton did, but when you make the right choices, winning just looks easier.
Apparently the penny has dropped for Hamilton. It’s dawned on him that making daring overtaking moves and racing your heart out isn’t necessarily enough to get the job done. According to another old racing adage, “It’s better to be lucky than to be good.” But perhaps a truer statement would be, “It’s better to be smart than just quick.”
Of course, it’s best to be both, which is what Button has shown himself to be this year. He hasn’t just been clever in the races. He’s also outqualified Hamilton in three races this year, which shows that he’s beaten his team mate in outright pace when it counted.
To his credit, Hamilton has accepted this turn of events very graciously. “Jenson is getting the results,” he said. “It is very impressive but I always thought he would. I’m not surprised he has settled so quickly.”
And Hamilton looked genuinely pleased in the post-race press conference at Shanghai, even though he was in the runner-up position, rather that being the winner. This seems to be a step forward in terms of maturity for the young Briton. At certain times in the past he’s looked downcast after being bettered by his rivals, but this year he’s not only taking Button’s success in his stride, he seems actually happy to have a competitive team mate who is able to push him to the limit. And more, he’s been willing to admit that perhaps there’s something he can learn from the older driver’s method.
While many predicted fireworks at McLaren with the Hamilton-Button pairing, it could be that this ends up being one of the most harmonious driver line-ups that McLaren has seen in years. Time will tell.