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Is Jenson Button a Better Racer than Lewis Hamilton?

McLaren team mates Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton

When Jenson Button announced that he was leaving Brawn GP to become Lewis Hamilton’s team mate at McLaren, there was a nearly universal expectation that he would be trounced by the the Woking squad’s golden boy.  After all, even as a rookie, Hamilton had been a burr under double-champ Fernando Alonso’s saddle.  And in the three years since his entry into F1, Hamilton has proven himself to be perhaps the most naturally gifted racer in the field.

Reality has a way of confounding expectations, however.  Just ask Michael Schumacher, over at Mercedes.  It was initially assumed that he’d leave his make his young team mate Nico Rosberg eat his dust, but thus far during the German’s comeback season it certainly hasn’t turned out that way.

Likewise, expectations have been overturned in the Button-Hamilton intra-team contest.  Button is leading in the points, and has scored two wins out of four races.  Hamilton has scored zero.  Does this mean that Button is better than his rival?  In a word, no.  But what we can say for certain is that Button has been better at racking up points this year, and it can’t be chalked up to good luck.  Button has simply been better at maximizing his opportunities than Hamilton has.

In every racing driver’s career, both experience and raw talent will at some point reach optimum levels.  Frequently, the two elements do not mature coincidentally.  However. if you were to plot experience and talent on x and y axes, the two curves would intersect at some point on the grid.  This would be the sweet spot in a driver’s career, the point at which his native abilities are at their peak, and his experience is best able to take full advantage of those abilities.  Many drivers seem to reach this point around age 30 – which just happens to be Jenson Button’s age this year.  Hamilton is five years younger.

While Button has led Hamilton in the points thus far, effectively silencing his critics, it’s nevertheless widely acknowledged that he has hasn’t found an edge simply by being quicker than Hamilton.  He’s been smarter.  His 10 years of working in the F1 trenches, at Williams, Renault, Honda and Brawn, are paying off.  He’s learned how to read a race, pace himself to suit conditions, and take care of his equipment.

No one will deny that Hamilton would likely beat Button in identical equipment under ideal conditions.  But in the world of F1, conditions are often far from ideal.  That’s what makes a race.  And while Hamilton might boast that he’s raced his heart out (and he frequently does — boast about it, that is), thus far this season it’s been Button, who has taken most of the laurels, by managing his races calmly, and making it look easy.

Two former world champs agree with the assessment.  Sir Jackie Stewart, a three-time title holder, said recently at a media scrum at Silverstone, “It is working much better [for Button] than I think anyone could have expected.  I did say that Button would be walking into the lion’s den, but what he has proved is that he can handle that very well. That is not to say that he is better than Lewis or vice-versa, but Jenson is in that zone at the moment where he is making the right decisions at the right time. I think if he keeps driving the way he is I would have to say he is the favourite of the two.”

Stewart also acknowledged that Hamilton probably had a greater natural gift, but reiterated that experience is often the active ingredient that produces results.  “I still think that Lewis is probably the better racer,” Sewart said.  “Nobody can pass cars like Lewis can pass cars and he is going to win races this year, I have no doubt about that. But Jenson, at 30, is at just the right age to have gained experience and knowledge and be able to apply it. And he’s doing that in a very smooth and calculated fashion.”

And one-off champ Damon Hill invoked an historical comparison, saying, “[Button and Hamilton] have two very different styles, a bit like Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, but I think they get on a bit better than those two thankfully. I think Jenson has got style and maturity in his driving now and he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone now he is world champion. He’s starting to enjoy himself, and when you get someone in that zone they can be quite impenetrable. My sense is Lewis feels a little bit frustrated with his bad luck but will be back in the frame quite soon.”

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