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With McLaren trailing Red Bull in the F1 constructors’ table their drivers need to perform well in front of the home crowd
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, the big home hopes for the British Grand Prix, may both be world champions and multimillionaires but they have much to prove in front of their supporters here on Sunday.
Hamilton, though driving better than at any other time since his title year of 2008, has slipped 23 points behind the championship leader, Fernando Alonso, after crashing out of the last race in Valencia. Apart from coming second in the third race in China Button has had five poor races since winning the opener in Australia.
While McLaren are hoping Silverstone’s high-speed corners will suit their car and that their drivers’ proven skill in wet conditions may also come into its own, both men are clearly feeling the pressure.
Hamilton looked a little taken aback when asked whether he had grown up. “What are you trying to say? I am getting older that’s for sure. Unfortunately.” Was he mellow, he was asked. “Yeah,” he said, doubtfully.
“I’m just approaching things a little bit smarter that I did before. Maybe.” But he was not smart enough to avoid the ultra-committed Pastor Maldonado in Spain, when the wiser course would have been to settle for points off the podium.
“I think I’m probably driving very similar to how I’ve always driven but I think 2007-2008 [his first and most successful seasons] were years when I was driving more off my senses and more off pure talent than knowledge. And perhaps now I have accumulated some knowledge and have been able to apply that to my talent, which has helped to make me overall be a little bit better.”
Hamilton, though, now in his sixth season, has yet to convince that he is a better driver than he was at the start. And if he is, is he really six years better?
Button, meanwhile, is looking for his first win at Silverstone and did not appear to appreciate being asked whether he was hurting after a series of indifferent performances. “It’s really not hurting. I drive a Formula One car for a living â€“ it’s the best job in the world! You could have a car and you are annoyed with the result and think that it is frustrating and that you need to sort it out, but then you get over it and improve it.
“I have been in this sport for a long time and know you have good times and some bad times. Unless you have the bad times, the good times do not feel as good as they do. So I have no issue where I am right now. I’m pretty happy to be fair.”
But where he is right now is eighth in the championship table, some 62 points behind Alonso, and just one more bad result away from falling out of realistic contention for his second title.
Another British driver, albeit from a different era, Martin Brundle, thinks he is hurting plenty, “but doesn’t want to show it to opponents”. Brundle, now Sky’s lead commentator, says: “Jenson’s problem, it’s not about nursing the tyres this year. It’s about getting them in the right temperature zones.
“We know he’s silky smooth but his smooth style is hurting him because he’s not getting enough temperature, whereas somebody who is more aggressive is getting more dividend. It depends on the track, the weather, the conditions, the set-up of the car, the cloud cover and all that. It is Jenson’s strength that he can nurse a set of tyres as well as anyone because he has this very distinctive style. But sometimes it pays to be more aggressive.”
Brundle, warming to his Button theme, continued: “Also, Jenson is not very good at driving around a problem. He likes everything working, the car and him and the track, or when you’ve got to go in search out a piece of grip on a drying track, he’s just about unbeatable, because he drives with such precision and he’s exquisite to watch.
“By the same token if the car is not with him â€“ and we saw it in his championship year in 2009 â€“ his driving style does not allow him to jockey a car around a racetrack, like a Hamilton or an Alonso. “But I think we’ve seen a much more focused, clearer-headed Lewis this year. Whenever he steps in a Formula One car you know he will be pushing the limits of how fast that car can go.”
For Brundle, Red Bull pose the greatest threat on Sunday. “I think Red Bull are beginning to demonstrate that they’re getting on top of the 2012 season and the 2012 tyres,” he says.
McLaren will have to bring their own upgrades to the table and hope they match those that Red Bull brought to Valencia, where Sebastian Vettel was two seconds a lap faster than Hamilton in the opening stages.
Hamilton doubts whether they will be. “I don’t think it’s a big, big step for us,” he warns. “Not as a big a step as it was for the Red Bulls in the last race, but hopefully it will enable us to be more competitive.”
Even though the season is something of lottery, McLaren will be anxious if they do not narrow the gap between themselves and Red Bull this weekend. They are 39 points behind in the constructors’ table and are a little fed up of playing catch-up.
This season they started like a train before becoming derailed by pit-lane mistakes and Button’s fall from form. Sunday is an immense day, both for the team and their drivers.