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F1 - IS DANIEL EATING THE LION?

  It is coming up on two years now that Jenson Button won the 2009 World Drivers Championship. Once the initial euphoria had waned it emerged that there were "issues" in renegotiating his Brawn (soon to be Mercedes) contract. Then suddenly, Jenson was a McLaren driver. And many fans, and quite a few pundits as well, cried "that's the end of Jenson!!" Leaping into the proverbial lion's den by joining a team that had been built around the super fast Hoon (Lewis Hamilton) many believed that Button would be demolished and his career in tatters by the time his contract was up for renewal.

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  Fortunately for your scribe, I wasn't one of those doomsayers, but I did describe it at the time as possibly one of Button's most courageous decisions. Those who ever watched Yes Minister would appreciate that one. I thought that Jenson would probably be outpaced over one lap but not destroyed by the Hoon and that the new rules outlawing refuelling may even balance things out in the races. It was, I thought, an impressive display of self confidence by Button that he believed that he could not just compete with, but beat Hamilton.

   The 2010 season confirmed my belief's (thankfully) and although Lewis was generally quicker over one lap (ie; in qualifying and scoring race fastest laps) the points gap at years end was just 26 points, only one point greater than a win, and both drivers scored two victories for the season. What few foresaw, apart from Jenson that is, is that at this point in 2011, taking both years into account, is that Jenson has scored six more points than Hamilton and both have taken five race wins. In other words, Button has scored 32 more points than Lewis so far this year and until last week in Suzuka he was the last man standing with a chance of stopping Vettel taking another championship.

   In Suzuka Jenson new precisely what he needed to do and pretty much dominated the weekend in what is clearly an inferior car than the Red Bulls. Fastest in most practice sessions, front row of the grid and a superb race in which his exceptional ability to maintain the life of his tyres meant that his victory was really never in doubt. He did everything he possibly could have done to maintain his title challenge without resorting to the sort of tactics common to a certain German driver. Vettel did himself a great disservice by resorting to those very tactics and really should have been handed at least a drive through penalty for his start-line antics. But I digress... 

  So, far from being demolished and his career in tatters, Button gleefully announced that he had signed a new multi-year contract (believed to be at least two years with the option of a third) and McLaren are obviously delighted to have retained his services. All is love and tranquillity on Jenson's side of the garage and one gets the impression that McLaren is no longer "Lewis's team" but is at least equally, if not more, Jenson's.

    Could this be one of the reasons that Hamilton is having so many accidents lately?  Lewis's comments on his future have modified from the 2008-09 type of "I want to spend my entire career with McLaren" to the "McLaren must lift their game if they want to keep me" type several times this year. Along with his misguided outbursts regarding Massa and Maldonado after Monaco many have blamed his management team for not keeping Lewis concentrating on being a great racing driver but being a "brand". This is also a possibility. And you've got to think that Martin Whitmarsh is getting just a little bit sick of having to defend Hamilton time and time again after either a crash or a crass comment. Or both.

    It's almost certainly a combination of all of these. As many in the team are growing ever fonder of Button, Lewis is not "feeling the love" as much as he has in earlier years, his mind is possibly not fully on what it should be concentrating on, and he is being beaten by a team-mate for the first time in his career. The pressure is on and some cracks are starting to show. In the last year he has had an accident at Monza (Massa), an accident at Singapore (Webber), been penalized for weaving at Sepang, two accidents at Monaco (Massa and Maldonado), two accidents at Spa (Maldonado and Kobayashi), an accident with a drive through penalty at Singapore (Massa) and an accident at Suzuka (Massa). 

   That four of these have occurred in the last four races where Button has been getting the upper hand suggests that Lewis is over-compensating. He has always been an aggressive racer going for any gap that existed but now he is going for gaps that aren't really there. This could turn into a vicious spiral in which Hamilton tries ever riskier moves in a desperate attempt to regain the upper hand and is involved in more and more incidents.

    So Jenson is going from strength to strength at McLaren and Lewis seems to be struggling to cope with this new dynamic so the next few years will be interesting viewing. Will Hamilton fight back and regain the upper hand over Button? He certainly has the ability to do so. Will he accept that overall, he and Jenson are pretty equal and, being comfortable with that, reduce his recent impetuosity? Or will his recent run of recklessness spiral out of control until Daniel has eaten the Lion?

 Sam Snape 

11/10/2011