McLaren is Lewis Hamilton's team. It has been that way since the amicable--sort of--departure of two-time champion Fernando Alonso at the end of the 2007 season with the visible signs of intra-team battle scars. Lewis's feet are on the desk and the investment checks McLaren provided the Hamilton's since Lewis was 11-years-old have cleared the bank. It is Lewis Hamilton's team. That is...until today.
A change has occurred at McLaren and depending on your position, it is a good change or a change that is, while not negative, certainly brow-raising. World champion Jenson Button has extended his contract in a multi-year deal with McLaren. The team is elated, Jenson Button is elated and Lewis Hamilton says he's elated too. No reason to doubt them but it does give reason for pause.
Jenson Button's move to McLaren in 2010 was met with some skepticism as everyone knew that the team was centered on Lewis Hamilton and Button's chance of besting the young, charging Brit was no small order. In fact, many had relegated Button to a support role status for the balance of his career.
A mere 12 months later, Button is leading Hamilton in the championship and quietly planted in second overall behind Red Bull's uncatchable Sebastian Vettel. How did this happen? How did an affable, gregarious man enter Hamilton's kingdom and not only ink a new multi-year contract but had Hamilton's measure in 2011?
Besides being a phenomenal organization, McLaren is run by human beings. Jenson Button has a way with human beings and he builds trust, friendships and respect based on his amenable approach to the CEO and custodian alike. Button eroded the Hamilton-centric operation by sheer "likability" and he's established himself as the elder statesman who has time and compassion for all who support his racing efforts.
Lewis Hamilton has had a difficult year and one cannot discount the effect this has had on his title chase and points standing. It's not entirely fair to suggest that McLaren favor Button over Hamilton as the latter is by all measure one of the fastest, most impassioned drivers on the grid. That passion has created complications for him in 2011 but on any given day, Hamilton not only has the measure of Button but just about everyone else on the grid.
The real issue is that Button has won the mental game at McLaren. Hamilton has been critical of his team and tactics, aggressive on the circuit and this has caused his season to fray at the edges. There is an old saying among men who fancy a girl who is currently claiming a boyfriend--just be nicer than the boyfriend. Button has been nicer than the boyfriend. He's endeared himself to the McLaren way and the team. He's amiable and calm.
This contrasts with Hamilton's excitability and challenging personal issues off the track that McLaren are rallying to manage. The sponsors love Button. They like his boyish smile and ever-supportive father. They like the image he presents as an incredibly healthy young man with life in a managed position espousing no emotional tirades or mind vomit sessions.
Button is the real deal and while Hamilton is undoubtedly quicker than Button and more apt to thrill fans with his epic passing and incredible pace, Button is more apt to beat Hamilton through concise, intelligent race craft designed to maximize points, deliver results, please sponsors, win the hearts of the team and remain uncontroversial.
Another challenging aspect is the mid-season rumors that Hamilton may be shopping around for another drive. That could be mere rumor-mongering but the thought of a Hamilton-less McLaren is not something all that shocking anymore as the relationship seemed to have developed some stress fractures earlier this year.
That may not be every fan's cup of tea and as a person who likes an aggressive driver, I find myself intrigued every weekend Hamilton drives, but if I were McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh, I'd gamble on Button first for a host a reasons that have more to do with McLaren's long-term aspirations and needs over my personal love of Lewis Hamilton's "racer" approach to grands prix.
Hamilton is experiencing a difficult year and some quarter needs to be given here. He's by no means old news. We've learned first-hand that should McLaren get their car sorted for 2012, Hamilton will be the man to place your bets on--as long as his mind is in the game and his race craft is centered on total results across McLaren's full host of initiatives. If not, my money is on Button and I suspect, deep down, many of the McLaren team's money is also there as well.