Jenson Button had some concerns before joining the home team of Lewis Hamilton but now believes he has a realistic chance of defending his Formula One world title in a McLaren.
Button, 30, said in an interview with DPA ahead of Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix that the first three races of the 2010 season have confirmed that he is on equal terms with the fellow-British 2008 champion Hamilton.
“One of the first things I asked, even before I joined the team, was whether this was Lewis’s team,” Button told DPA in an e-mail interview.
“And the answer was very emphatic: not only is it not Lewis’s team, but it’s also a team that believes passionately in providing both drivers with equal opportunities, and without favouritism. That was very important to me — and everything I’ve seen here has led me to believe that that’s true.”
Button came to McLaren from Brawn GP (which is now Mercedes GP) after winning the 2009 world title. It was his first real switch of team since he left Benetton after the 2002 season for BAR. BAR later became Honda, and Brawn GP was formed in early 2009 from the ashes of Honda.
Some wondered whether Button would survive at the team, which then two-time world champion Fernando Alonso left after just one frustrating 2007 season, claiming that Hamilton, a long-time protégé of former team boss Ron Dennis, received preferential treatment.
But so far Button has the top honours this season with a big win at the Australian GP and finishes further down in the points in the other races to rank fourth with 35 points, just four shy of Ferrari driver Felipe Massa. Hamilton so far has 31 points.
“In many ways, my victory in Australia made no difference, because I already knew that the team would give me an equal opportunity, and that it wasn’t about me fighting to assert myself within the team,” Button said.
“And I think if you were to ask Lewis if Vodafone McLaren Mercedes is ‘his’ team, he’d give you the same answer as me.” The Melbourne victory on March 28, his eighth overall, was nonetheless special.
“It was an extremely important win for me. It was very emotional too. It wasn’t just the win that was satisfying, it was about the significance of the win, both to my season and to my career as a whole.
“After spending seven seasons with my previous team, my move to McLaren was all about challenging myself and pushing myself to higher heights, and I think the win in Melbourne was a complete justification of that.
“I hope it shows that I made a good decision by choosing to join Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.” Button spoke of his pride at being part of a team that has been in the sport for 40 years and he hopes to make history as the first Briton to win back-to-back titles.
Fourteen world titles have been won by Britons but none of the multiple champions (Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart) have won the titles in successive years.
“Obviously, I’m looking to retain the title — I’d love to be the first British driver to be able to do that — and the first three races still make that very possible, which is good,” he told dpa.
“I think any driver from McLaren, Mercedes GP, Red Bull and Ferrari will have a good chance of winning the championship, but it’s still too early to say there’s one driver who’s the particular favourite. There are a lot of very good teams and drivers fighting it out.
They include record world champion Michael Schumacher, who effectively replaced Button at Mercedes. Button expects him to shine at the top soon despite a slow start after three years away from racing.
“I think Michael’s doing a very good job: people tend to overlook the fact that he’s been out of the cockpit for three years, but his pace has been extremely good. I’ve got no doubts that Michael will be back at the front very soon,” said Button.
Button named consistency a key element as he praised the car as “phenomenally reliable over the past couple of seasons.” Looking ahead at Sunday’s race in Shanghai, he still sees room for improvement, though.
“We’re still learning about the MP4-25, and I’m still getting myself fully comfortable with the car, but I think we have as good a chance as we had in Australia and Malaysia. I feel pretty confident that we’ll be fighting at the front,” he said.