McLaren seek parity of esteem for leading men
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button will be pulling together, says Maurice Hamilton
H aving world champions on board is nothing new for a team entering its 45th season. But never before have McLaren employed consecutive champions.
McLaren's history shows two superstars can make for trouble. In 1989, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna tried to drive each other off the road during an increasingly bitter feud. Three years ago, Fernando Alonso came close to tearing the team apart thanks to a perceived lack of respect as he tried to deal with the presence of Lewis Hamilton. Now Hamilton, having won the title a year later, is looking to have the No 1 returned to his car in 2011 after his new team-mate, Jenson Button, took it away last season.
Button and Hamilton have shown the bonhomie you would expect when they are not actually racing. It was the same on the eve of the opening grand prix in 2007 when Hamilton and Alonso chatted amicably during a photo call on the beach in Melbourne. Thirty seconds into the Australian Grand Prix and Alonso knew he had trouble on his hands as Hamilton cheekily ran round the outside of the double world champion. Things were never the same again.
McLaren were prepared then -- or so they thought -- just as they now say that everything has been done to ensure parity and a happy ship. Given Button's more amiable nature, it's unlikely there will be outbursts of Alonso-like proportions, but the same may not be said of Hamilton should Button be either the quicker of the two or accumulate more points. Hamilton, however, admits he did not handle his maiden season as well as he should.
"In 2007, I was alongside a two-time world champion and he was seen as the guy to win the championship," Hamilton said last week. "I misinterpreted the goals and misunderstood how the team worked. I now know that they do everything to give the team and each individual the best package possible. I've never had more than the guy next to me. We've always had equal opportunity. But it's not easy to manage that because one driver will be ahead of the other at some stage."
McLaren have introduced the new post of principal race engineer. Phil Prew, formerly Hamilton's engineer, will oversee and co-ordinate Andy Latham, who takes Prew's place with Hamilton, and Jakob Andreasen, who will work closely with Button. The emphasis is on transparency and the sharing of information.
"Obviously, the drivers bring different things and both have different emphases but there is quite a bit they can learn from each other," says Prew. "Typically, after getting out of his car, a driver will first do a debrief with his engineer, and that's quite a personal thing. But everyone will be in the same room. So you have the situation where one driver will say, 'My car is doing this -- is yours?' That's the sort of exchange that will happen. Once that's been completed, all the information will be on the table for each engineering group to share. It's left to me to try and pull the pieces together and interweave them to provide the best benefit for both drivers and, of course, the team."
A situation neither driver will be familiar with is the need to run each race without refuelling, for the first time since 1993. As last year, each driver must use each of the two types of tyre made available by Bridgestone, but the emphasis will be on looking after those tyres, particularly in the opening stages when the car is heavy with fuel. Apart from watching each other, Hamilton and Button will need to keep an eye on the opposition as each driver runs his own tactics, having perhaps been slow at the start but making a charge in the closing laps, a tactic employed to great effect by Prost as he won races almost by stealth.
Based on the admittedly inconclusive evidence of recent testing, McLaren see Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull as their principal rivals. McLaren's hopes must rest with Ferrari and Red Bull suffering from the sort of internal rivalry the British team is going to great lengths to avoid.
Alonso's arrival at Ferrari will stiffen Felipe Massa's resolve to prove he has recovered from the head injury received last July and regain the initiative in a team he had made his own. Mark Webber, at 33, must see 2010 as perhaps his last chance to win the title in a car as good as the Red Bull and put one over on Sebastian Vettel, 11 years the Australian's junior.
And then there is Michael Schumacher making a comeback with Mercedes and knowing that every single driver on the grid would love, given half a chance, to see off the winner of 91 grands prix.
Typically, Schumacher has worked it so that he has the best possible support thanks to joining an all-German team but with the important proviso that it is run by his former technical mentor Ross Brawn. When it comes to reading races and adapting to new tactics, there is no one better than the man who masterminded all seven of Schumacher's titles at Benetton and Ferrari.
Naturally, every driver you speak to feels his chances have never been better. "This year I've got a much, much better package than last year and, if we pull together, anything is possible," Hamilton says. "Last year you were flat out from the start of the race but now you have to manage the car, look after your tyres and nurture them until the car gets lighter and you can push a bit more. Push too early and you will damage the tyres. You have to be very mature and make wise decisions about how you utilise all the tools you have to the maximum. We definitely have good pace but we need to continually improve the car -- because everyone else will."
Despite the lingering possibility of conflict on the track, Prew is relishing having two world champions on board. "They're different characters, as you would expect," he says. "Both want to go out there and win. They know how to win; both are champions and that's quite special."