Lewis Hamilton may not have intended to be provocative, or to pick a fight with his old team-mate Jenson Button, but he has indisputably raised the stakes in their rivalry when the world championship starts in Melbourne on Sunday.
For many, Button may never have a greater chance of winning a second world title now that Hamilton is no longer racing in an identical McLaren after opting to seek a bold new adventure with Mercedes.
In the big picture, Hamilton seeks nothing less than greatness, he said last week.
Provocative: Lewis Hamilton has raised the stakes with his former team, and team-mate, by saying he isn;t looking at McLaren or Button next season
DAMON HILL'S WORLD TITLE TOP 3
1) FERNANDO ALONSO
2) SEBASTIAN VETTEL
3) JENSON BUTTON
I’d love to see Jenson Button do well, and Lewis Hamilton give Mercedes some direction.
But, if Fernando Alonso can repeat what he did last year, in a less than perfect car, I think he will be champion.
Yet surely an immediate mission will begin with his duel against Button and his old team McLaren, who groomed him for stardom from childhood?
'That doesn’t really excite me,' said Hamilton.
Instead, he wants to be judged against Fernando Alonso, and Sebastian Vettel, the winners of five of the past eight world championships. Most of all, he wants to be assessed against Alonso, a winner of 30 grands prix.
'The rivalry between me and Fernando excites me more [than with Button],' said Hamilton. 'He’s the guy I want to beat. You also want to beat Seb, as they are the ones with most titles. But Alonso’s the fastest driver I can see. He’s also one of the most experienced. Anyone would struggle to beat him.
'Trying to finish ahead of Alonso, in a Ferrari that is actually really competitive, is a really nice challenge. And I do think the Ferrari is going to be quick this year.'
Hamilton’s introduction to Alonso, at McLaren in his rookie season in 2007, was highly combustible.
Not exciting: The rivalry with Fernando Alonso excites Hamilton more than any potential rivalry with Button
WHAT'S NEW? THE CARS
There are few significant rule changes to cope with this season. The biggest change will come next year, when turbocharged 1.6 litre V6 engines will replace the 2.4 litre V8 era. So once the circus returns to Europe in May, following the first four fly-away races, a great deal of team resources will be dedicated to next season’s engine change.
After a series of acrimonious incidents, the Spaniard, already a double world champion, reacted to losing the uncivil war by instigating an FIA inquiry, accusing McLaren personnel of having possession of Ferrari data, that led to the British team being fined $100million.
Times move on — and Hamilton unapologetically nominates Alonso as the driver of the modern generation, regardless of the fact Vettel has won the past three titles since Button was world champion in 2009. Button will not publicly rise to the bait but will remember Hamilton’s dismissive opinion after three years as team-mates. Indeed, he was not slow to have a subtle dig at Hamilton before his departure for Melbourne last week.
‘I feel I’d like to end my career at McLaren,’ said Button, who was broadly advised three years ago that he risked driving his career into a cul-de-sac when he joined the team fashioned around Hamilton.
Nothing could have proved further from the truth. Button’s charm, self-deprecating humour and, most importantly, a ruthless racing brain, have brought him total admiration within the team’s workforce at their HQ in Woking, Surrey.
The edge: Damon Hill believes Fernando Alonso will win the title ahead of Sebastian Vettel
WHAT'S NEW? THE TYRES
Pirelli have been instructed to supply tyres that will degrade faster. The subtle changes are designed to make them harder to manage by drivers, leading to more pit-stops and greater excitement. During winter testing the paddock was bewildered by the rate of tyre wear and this threatens to be significant in the early races. Speed may have to be sacrificed so tyres last longer.
To witness his victory in atrocious conditions in the final race of last season in Brazil — his 15th victory — was to see the baton being passed from Hamilton to Button inside the team.
‘It’s the right place for me to be for the long term,’ said Button, 33. ‘Some people have left because they feel there is another challenge or something missing from their position.
‘There is still so much to achieve here. When we had the launch of our 2013 car, it was amazing to see cars representing 50 years of McLaren brought out; to look at the team’s history and the championships won. We really are a spectacular team.
‘I want to add to that history; not just this year, but for the coming years.’ Button is at his most dangerous in Melbourne, having won three of the past four Australian Grands Prix, although where McLaren’s performance is in relation to Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus, or, for that matter, Mercedes is a mystery — 12 days of inconclusive winter testing offered fluctuating evidence of the pecking order we can expect Down Under.
‘It’s been an extremely hard-to-read winter,’ said Button. ‘Varying fuel loads and levels of tyre degradation mean it’s hard to predict accurately who will arrive in Australia with the best-sorted car. But I love the place.’
Danger: Vettel is chasing his fourth World Championship
WHAT'S NEW? THE CIRCUITS
Bernie Ecclestone had hoped for a new race in New Jersey this year to replace Valencia in June but that hit money problems. There is a vacant date, which the underwhelming circuit in Turkey had hoped to fill. And if Portugal and Austria don’t get it, Europe’s weakening status in Formula One will be confirmed with just seven races this season — the fewest since 1963.
Hamilton has not taken a backward glance since he took the gamble last autumn of tying his future to Mercedes in exchange for a three-year contract worth £60million, with the freedom for his management company, XIX Entertainment, to broaden his commercial portfolio.
‘It needs to be made clear that it was more lucrative [in salary] to stay with McLaren,’ insisted Hamilton.
His motivation in moving from McLaren, where he could expect to challenge for the championship this season, is governed by an ambition to replicate what Michael Schumacher achieved, year after year, with Ferrari and what Vettel is accomplishing with his dominance at Red Bull. At McLaren, the hall of fame is inhabited by the ghost of Ayrton Senna.
At 28, Hamilton is arriving at his peak years with 21 victories already in a career that has never lacked controversy on the track, or off it. Perhaps he has never driven better than last year. ‘You want to be the one,’ he told a small gathering at the BRDC Clubhouse at Silverstone.
No 4: Max Chilton becomes the fourth British driver in F1
WHAT'S NEW? THE DRIVERS
Max Chilton joins Lewis Hamilton (now with Mercedes on a £60million deal), Jenson Button and Paul di Resta as the fourth British driver in the championship after being fast-tracked by Marussia.
Chilton, 21, benefits from having AON insurance vice-chairman Grahame Chilton as his father. He is worth £93m and owns the Carlin Motorsport team, where Chilton raced in GP2.
An F1 seat for this season reportedly costs £1.8m but Chilton denies he is a spoilt rich kid. ‘No team are going to let you behind the wheel if you’re not up to it,’ he says. Even so, Pastor Maldonado contributes £29m to the williams team budget through sponsorship from Venezuela’s state oil company, and Williams’ newest driver, 21-year-old Valtteri Bottas, from Finland, found the budget to secure the seat from Bruno Senna.
Chilton will be joined at Marussia by Frenchman Jules Bianchi after the team’s first choice, Luiz Riaza, failed to deliver promised funding.
Giedo van der Garde (Caterham) and Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) have also paid for their seats, Which means five of the 22 drivers next week will be making their Formula One debut.
Susie Wolff, wife of McLaren shareholder and Mercedes director Toto Wolff, is McLaren’s development driver, the second woman recently in F1 after Marussia’s Maria de Villota, who lost an eye in a test drive last year.
‘I was the one for a short period of time, as the youngest world champion, then I was toppled by Vettel. Fernando had his success. I expect myself to win.
'I expect myself to excel. Ultimately, I want to achieve greatness. I want to prove my abilities year after year. Michael is seen as an all-time great, Seb is, too. I want to be seen as great as well.’
In winter testing, Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have shown that Mercedes have made a startling improvement in performance after winning just one grand prix in the past three years.
‘I’m 100 per cent confident and happy with the decision that I made — and keeping myself out of trouble!’ said Hamilton.
‘The more time I spend at the factory the more excited I become. It’s just a beautiful place to be and I’m happier with the environment I’m in. I don’t have anything negative to say about McLaren — I was lucky to be given the opportunity by the team to get into Formula One.
‘Had I stayed I was guaranteed to be competitive.
'Yet I’m not looking to get one over McLaren. I know that I have gone to a team who have been unable to compete with the car I had last year — at some races, there was a deficit in qualifying of 1.9sec from Mercedes to McLaren — but we all have a hunger to change. I think Mercedes will impress this year.’
Hamilton will be driven to prove that he was correct to free himself from McLaren, where the management structure made him feel claustrophobic, to fulfil a search for ultimate greatness.
But with a nudge to his growing maturity, Hamilton said: ‘When I look at it sensibly, I realise I have quite a lot of time left.’