Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton – how Britain’s world champions compare

Britain's back-to-back champions

Britain's back-to-back champions

For the first time in 36 years, Britain has two world champions competing in F1: Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

To put into perspective how rare and unusual this is, the last country to have a pair of champions competing was Brazil, thanks to Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet, in 1991.

So how do Britain’s two F1 champions compare? And can either of them continue Britain’s championship monopoly for a third straight year in 2010?

Route to F1

Anthony Hamilton looks on as son Lewis prepares to claim the GP2 title at Monza

Anthony Hamilton looks on as son Lewis prepares to claim the GP2 title at Monza

Button had a lot of success in karting but spent just two seasons in single-seaters racing before graduating to F1.

He won the British Formula Ford championship in 1998, his first year out of karts, and that year’s Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. The following year he moved up to British Formula Three, and ended the year third overall behind Marc Hynes and future F1 driver Luciano Burti.

Button expected the next step in his career to be an F3000 drive. But as luck would have it, a place opened up at Williams at short notice…

McLaren’s man

Hamilton’s path to F1 took a more conventional route but was unusual in one respect. Aged nine he introduced himself to McLaren boss Ron Dennis – and a few years later Dennis came on board to support Hamilton’s career.

Although things didn’t always run smoothly between the Hamilton family and McLaren – with at least one threatened break-up along the way – there’s no denying it was of huge benefit to his development, particularly as he made the tricky jump from karts to racing cars.

He ended his first season of Formula Renault in 2002 with two wins from the final three races. He was clear favourite to win the title in 2003 and, after a patchy start, won ten of the last 13 rounds to claim the championship.

A similar pattern followed in the F3 Euro Series. In his second season, with ASM (now part of the ART powerhouse) he won 15 of the 20 rounds. And he lost another victory ‘on the road’ at Spa due to a technical infringement.

Hamilton claimed the GP2 title at his first attempt in 2006. But there were glimpses of the form we recognise from his three years in F1 in that title-winning season. At some races he flattened his opponents, such as his crushing victory at the Nurburgring. And there were awesome passes – like his three-wide move on Nelson Piquet Jnr and Clivio Piccione at Silverstone.

But with the title in his sight he began throwing points away and making needless mistakes. A mistake in qualifying ruined his weekend in Hungary. And at Istanbul he spun early on and fell to the back of the field – the prelude to an epic fight back to the front.

F1 debuts

Button made a surprise F1 debut for Williams in 2000. It came about because the unhappy Alessandro Zanardi had quit his deal with the team one year early – and Juan Pablo Montoya wasn’t available to take his place until 2001.

Promoting Button to take the seat alongside Ralf Schumacher was always going to be something of a stopgap solution, particularly as Williams had just made an engine deal with BMW. Button got the nod after a shoot-out test with Bruno Junquiera.

Those who felt the 20-year-old had got his break too soon were given ammunition when he qualified on the back row at Melbourne. But he was running in the points when his engine failed 12 laps short of the flag.

His potential soon began to shine through. At Interlagos he finished seventh, before David Coulthard’s disqualification promoted him to sixth, making him the youngest points-scorer ever at the time.

He impressed again with a mature drive to fourth in tricky conditions at Hockenheim, and qualified a sensational third at Spa – ahead of Michael Schumacher, in the days before race-fuel qualifying. His potential was clear, but with Williams unable to retain him for 2001 it would be three years before he could demonstrate his potential again.

Starting at the top

Hamilton’s debut for McLaren was only two years ago, and was remarkable in every sense – beginning with the fact that McLaren had put a rookie in one of their cars for the first time in 12 years.

At Melbourne he passed team mate Fernando Alonso at the first corner, beginning a year-long feud between the two which became a public war of words at Monte-Carlo and the Hungaroring, and ended up with Alonso leaving the team.

Hamilton went into the final two races leading the championship but a combination of bad luck and rookie inexperience saw him lose the title to Kimi Raikkonen. But even without the title, equalling a reigning double champion’ points tally in year one was an extraordinary achievement.

Read more: Hamilton vs Alonso

The championship wait

Future team mate Barrichello chases Button down in 2002

Future team mate Barrichello chases Button down in 2002

That one year was the sum total of Hamilton’s wait for the championship. At the same track where he lost the title in 2007 he was crowned 12 months later.

Button, meanwhile, had spent the best part of a decade swinging from one extreme to the next.

He endured a ‘difficult second album’ of a season with Benetton in 2001. The car, burdened with Renault’s problematic wide-angle V10, was slow, and Giancarlo Fisichella did a markedly better job coping with it that Button did.

Although Button fared better in 2002, as the team was taken over by Renault, he was shown the door by Flavio Briatore at the end of the year to make way for Alonso.

Button found a home at BAR and has stuck with the team through good times and bad – and two changes of name – for the past seven years. In his coming-of-age season, 2004, Button was consistently best of the rest behind the Ferraris.

But even as BAR were in the ascendancy, Button was looking for a route back to the team that had given him his first F1 break. A Williams deal was announced, which he then went back on, bringing about sharp public criticism and a change of management teams.

BAR made a habit of ‘winning the winter championship’ only to disappoint once the season started. That was especially true in 2005, which proved a disastrous follow-up to the previous years’ success. The season hit a low point at Imola, where the team was found to be using an illegal fuel tank, and banned for two races.

There were two significant changes for 2006: a new team mate in Rubens Barrichello and, more significantly, the team had now been taken over by engine suppliers Honda.

Once again their pre-season form wasn’t borne out by results in the first half of the season. However in Hungary Button seized the initiative on a damp but drying track to claim his long-awaited first win. Fortune had been on Button’s side – Alonso dropping out after pitting from the lead – but his drive from 14th on the grid to win had a lot of class about it.

Button ended the year on a high, scoring more points than anyone else over the final six races. But the team got its 2007 challenger badly wrong, and Button and Barrichello spent the year scratching round at the back of the field. Only late in the season did they finally amass enough points to overhaul Super Aguri, Honda’s offshoot B-team using a modified version of their 2006 car.

On track the results in 2008 were scarcely any better, though Barrichello tended to out-perform his team mate. With hindsight, appointing Ross Brawn to run the team and focus priorities on the 2009 car was exactly the right thing to do. But Honda, unnerved by the economic downturn at the end of 2008, decided it couldn’t wait any longer for results and put the team up for sale.

Read more: Hungarian Grand Prix 2006 Review

Their championship wins

McLaren celebrate Hamilton's championship victory in 2008

McLaren celebrate Hamilton's championship victory in 2008

The differences between Hamilton’s championship win in 2008 and Button’s in 2009 tell us a lot about their strengths and weaknesses.

Inevitably their seasons were shaped by the cars they drove. Hamilton enjoyed a consistently competitive McLaren throughout 2008. Though it was seldom as dominant as Button’s Brawn was in the first half of 2009, nor was it out-classed in the way the BGP001 sometimes was in the latter stages of this year.

Button made hay while the sun shone with six wins from the first seven races. He was clinical, smooth, undramatic and uncontroversial.

Hamilton was quite the opposite – a rough diamond. On his day he could reel off masterful, untroubled victories – Melbourne and Silverstone, for example. But there were needless mistakes at Bahrain and Magny-Cours, among others. He should have wrapped the championship up before the final race of the season, like Button did, had he not thrown away points on these occasions.

But while Button struggled to beat Barrichello in the second half of 2009 – especially in qualifying – Hamilton was rarely troubled by his team mate.

In the run-up to Brazil this year it was amusing to read the criticism of Button, particularly in the national newspapers, saying he was being too conservative and in danger of throwing away the championship. Much of this criticism came from people who, 12 months earlier had criticised Hamilton for not being conservative enough.

Although it’s easy to over-state these points there is a grain of truth in them. Hamilton is a hot-blooded, Senna-esque (or even Villeneuve-esque) racers’ racer. He’ll wring every tenth out of the car and then a few more, but the downside is he might stick it in the wall every now and then. Button is more of a shrewd, smooth Prost-like operator, but can be flummoxed by an unco-operative car or low tyre temperatures.

It’s been pointed out already that they both won their championships by finishing in fifth at Brazil, in cars bearing the same number and both with Mercedes engines.

But for all the superficial similarities their differences in style and background are deeper and more profound. But Britain’s last two consecutive champions, Graham Hill (1968) and Jackie Stewart (1969) didn’t have an awful lot in common either.

Career statistics to date

Jenson Button Lewis Hamilton
Grand Prix starts 169 51
Grand Prix wins 7 11
Grand Prix podiums 23 27
Pole positions 7 16
Fastest laps 2 3

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100 comments on Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton – how Britain’s world champions compare

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  1. Terry Fabulous said on 24th October 2009, 7:54

    Great comparison Keith, there are certainly some striking differences between their routes to No 1.

    Ironically, given that I am an unabashed lover of Jenson and the way he drives the car, this season has convinced me that Lewis is better!

    My biggest criticism of Lewis has been his inability to develop a car, thinking that Alonso did all the work for him. Well this season has shown what a good job he can do. I’m sure that if you put the two of them in the same car, Lewis would come out on top.

    Jenson is still freaking fast and a deserved World Champion though, thank goodness he grabbed this opportunity.

  2. SonyJunkie said on 24th October 2009, 7:56

    Excellent article Keith. I can see a few more championships for Lewis, but I think that’s it for Jenson now. Still, well done to them both.

    • There is not question about it with Hamilton, he may be 40 points behind this season which if he hadn’t got disqualified in one race and lost 6 for pushing at Monza he would be several points less, he’s best of the rest apart from Brawn/RedBull. If no car outshines next year he’ll take it.

      You can see his style from the last few races (Not so sure what Heikki is doing is the same car!), Lewis has now had three podiums in a row (5 for the races he has finished, while Heikki has had 5,4,6,6,7,11,12th

      7/7 race finishes, 17 points for HeiKki
      5/7 tace finishes, 40 points for Lewis

    • Aaron said on 25th October 2009, 11:25

      LH and his erratic over aggressive driving is Senna-esque yet Kobbie was dangerous and a hazard…

      Another nothing article to do nothing more than fulfill a gushing love affair that some have with LH.

  3. wasiF1 said on 24th October 2009, 8:28

    1st of all excellent job Keith
    They are worth champions but a news in ESPNSTAR last night said both Button & Hamilton will be in Mclaren from 2010 I don’t how true that is if it is why will Brawn wants to shed off Button when he said he want to stay in the team for future.

    Between them I will have Hamilton in my team because he is aggressive & will provide for feedback than Button.

  4. lets hope they are teammates next year as well!

  5. great article Keith and I disagree with SonyJunkie,Button era is not over..he will win next year too

  6. steph90 said on 24th October 2009, 9:07

    This has to be one of my favourite articles which is a credit as I dislike both the drivers but I love comparisons like these. I suppose the next this could happen is if Heikki of Jaime won (and then we could compare the Fins or the Spaniards). Good thing there are a lot of young talented Germans.
    As much as it pains me-I prefer Hamilton’s driving, I think he’s better and I like that style.
    Next year, providing the cars are as quick as we expect, I think Hamilton will be the contender for the title. Hamilton will enjoy more support-he is a love or hate character but he will maybe get more grief too. Jense will probably be overlooked unless he is winning as that is our British way :P.
    Hamilton until this season has always had a good car allowing him to win, to judge how good he is, the performances need to be looked at. Not all rookies could take on the reigning WDC in his first year.
    In his short time Hamilton has been put with Alonso and Kimi in terms of being a great driver (you can put whoever you want with those 2 it is just Alo and Kimi are considered the best) whereas after nearly a decade Jense still struggles for that recognition.

  7. Personally I think Button’s best chance of another title win would be to stay put and get the car designed to his style. I think LH’s style is to need a more edgy car which JB couldn’t cope with, then LH would make him look a chump!

  8. sin099 said on 24th October 2009, 9:11

    great article.. but i think SonyJunkie is correct.. seriously i think hamilton is quicker then button.. and a lot more racer is faster then button.. like alonso,kimi,massa and hamilton etc..

  9. pitt layne said on 24th October 2009, 9:41

    It’s not too complicated. Button is Prost-smooth. He needs the car to be a certain set-up in order to be quick. If not, then he’ll drive within the limits of the car, mistake free, like Prost. Hamilton is Senna-smooth. He’ll develop the car but simultaneously driving beyond the deficencies in setup or design is built into his talent. Mistakes may and do come. Like Senna. Over a race, Hamilton is quickest. Over a season, Button is reliable.

  10. mp4-19b said on 24th October 2009, 9:51

    British fans must be the most broadminded F1 Fans. We find people over here who support Ferrari. I would like to know if there is at least one Italian who supports McLaren or Williams? Just goes to show how nice we are. But sadly there is no reciprocation.

    • steph90 said on 24th October 2009, 10:03

      Maybe it is a lot to do with the media, countries tend to be fanatical about their own country. Look at Brit whenever one or ours is winning they’re treated like a God in the media which gives that impression to the rest of the world. It may be that situation in other places too.
      I think Rampante did say that Italy genuinely loved the Ferrari car and probably STR/Minardi too. I don’t really know much about other countries feelings towards F1 teams so I can’t comment that much.

      • S Hughes said on 24th October 2009, 13:00

        Not true; Lewis got loads of positive press in his first year, but was slaughtered by the British press in his second year. The British press has been overly praiseworthy of Button – I’ve seen articles in all the major papers saying he is a worthy champion as if they want to convince us of it. I remember even Keith put him as the best driver half way through the season (wonder if that will stay the same) which I thought was purely because he had more points. Pretty meaningless when he had the best car by a mile. As soon as Button won the championship this year, the Times put him 16th of the best 50 modern F1 drivers, with Hamilton ludicrously 21st, 5 places behind him. Despite Lewis winning more GPs in less starts, etc etc. Also, there was non-stop hating going on when Lewis moved to Switzerland, whereas not a mention was made of Button or Coulthard’s tax exile status in Monaco. So much was made of it, I saw comment from a reader on the Daily Heil site saying at least Button lived in this country and paid his taxes unlike Lewis. You see, he hadn’t even heard of Button’s Monaco residency because he wasn’t berated in the same way.

        So the British press are not always supportive of British drivers, especially if they are black. Whereas I’m sure Spanish newspapers are 100% behind Teflonso, and Polish newspapers 100% behind Kubica.

    • I know one Italian who supports McLaren, ironically because she considers Schumacher a cheat.

      I think it has a lot to do with the fact that in Britain the media focuses so much more on the driver. In Italy, maybe they care more about the team, and want drivers to succeed to that end.

    • British fans must be the most broadminded F1 Fans. We find people over here who support Ferrari. I would like to know if there is at least one Italian who supports McLaren or Williams?

      I’ve seen Italians supporting McLaren, Hamilton and some of them Williams, but they write in Italians Blogs, something that you, “Broadminded F1 fans”, hardly think it could happen… but believe me, there are Italian blogs, some of them serious ones, full plenty of F1 fans not needing to come to a British blog to write about F1!!!!

    • Carl27 said on 24th October 2009, 23:45

      I have to disagree, there are a lot of LH supporters in many diff countries as well as other drivers, go to any foreign F1 forum and you’ll see the same love/hate with the big names, FA, LH, KR,…, if you are a true fanatic you can support a driver but that shouldn’t stop you from admiring others.

    • Damian said on 25th October 2009, 23:09

      British F1 fans are not broadminded. They have a trendy anti-partisanship which is as ridiculous as Spain’s blind devotion to Alonso. “Look at me, I buck trends by not following the British driver” is how many British F1 fans want to be seen. It’s a bit pathetic, I think.

      • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 26th October 2009, 8:59

        You can’t say that any nation “has the most broadminded fans”, but I think countries that are newer to F1 are more inclined to supporting domestic drivers.

        I think there is some “trendy anti-partisanship” (good phrase!) but equally there are people who support British teams and British drivers. But one of the good things about being a British F1 fan is you usually have the choise of a couple of drivers and hald-a-dozen teams that are from Britain.

        • Damian said on 26th October 2009, 12:21

          To play devil’s advocate to my own point slightly, one reason Britain’s fans tend to be quite ‘broadminded’ is that the British F1 press is far more international in its focus. F1 Racing is translated into many languages, the BBC and Speed TV commentary are heard all over the world and the British websites are popular outside of English speaking countries too.

          And before you try to disprove my point with me with the terrifying words “James” and “Allen”, just see the kind of bias the Spanish TV spews out:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iz3hgxAsPOU&feature=player_embedded

          (‘el milagro’ means ‘the miracle’)

          Suddenly British commentary looks a lot more impartial.

          • Damian said on 26th October 2009, 12:22

            Sorry, link dead. Damn. It was funny, anyway, showing the Spanish commentators calling Hamilton’s ’07 Chinese GP retirement ‘a miracle’.

  11. Those statistics say it all, Hamilton would clean the floor with Button i’m sure.

  12. Hamilton is obviously better than Button when it comes to driving cars that aren’t perfectly double-diffused. However, with a perfect car maybe they are somewhat equal because they both would get poles and wins. I’ll take Hamilton though because no car is great at every track all season.

  13. Sebastian said on 24th October 2009, 10:00

    Button isn’t even top 8 in terms of skill.

  14. Derek said on 24th October 2009, 10:10

    The Mclaren is designed around Lewis, next years car must already be well down that road. As Jenson and Lewis’s driving stiles are so far apart, the car cannot suit both drivers. So where would this leave jenson???

  15. Nice, in-depth analysis Keith. I think it’s fair to say Hamilton is better than Button, and that this is down to their style more than an out-and-out talent war (though I would argue Lewis pips Jenson here too). Getting that dog of a McLaren to 9th place in Spain, where last year in similar situations Button rarely scored a point, demonstrates the difference between them.

    In his brilliant book on Hamilton, Mark Hughes says that if Lewis can learn to iron out rash mistakes, he’ll be even more complete than Schumacher was (I’d argue Alonso is getting there too, but whilst his cool nature on the track prevents him from making Schumacher-style blunders, it also prevents him from squeezing out those last few hundredths that would separate him from the Meister in a head-to-head challenge in equal cars at the top of their form – what Hamilton has to do is be smart about situations, rather than less aggressive). I can’t see Button joining the top ranks of drivers, what I call “Tier 0″, and only at a push will he join the great “Tier 1″ drivers like (currently) Alonso and Hamilton, and Raikkonen. If only Button had peaked in form and achievement in a grid less crowded with talent, he might have had more of a chance to show off how good he is. I’d be surprised to see him win another title, but only because of what he’ll be up against.

    • Just to add, I hope we have the old Kimi back in a quick car next year. When you think of who they’re most like in style, it should be epic:

      Hamilton – Senna
      Button – Prost
      Alonso – Schumacher
      Raikkonen – hard to say but he reminds me of Gilles Villeneuve
      Massa – A nicer version of Nelson Piquet Snr
      Button – Prost/Hill
      Rosberg – a bit like daddy, really! But better, and he wasn’t a bad racer at all

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