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

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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