Op-Ed: The reason the McLaren boys are getting on so well

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this Formula 1 season, you know that one of the ongoing storylines has been the intra-team battles.

Red Bull’s Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel have, of course, provided most of the fun (check out Paul Charsley’s take), but Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa have had their moments (in pitlane, especially), and there seems to be a growing difference of opinion between Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg — who wants the team to keep developing the 2010 car — and Michael Schumacher — who is ready to focus on 2011.

But the team that heading into the season seemed most likely to blow up is going along fine.

McLaren is leading the constructors title race over Red Bull by a healthy 29 points and its two drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, are 1-2 in the drivers championship.

Remember, those two are the last two world champions. And they’re on the same team.

So where’s the fireworks? Where’s the Red Bull-like squabble? Where’s the public rebuke?

Those haven’t happened. Instead, we’ve been treated to ongoing McLaren-produced videos of the two drivers getting along, building F1 cars, lurking around garages, etc.

So, just how can this be? The answer’s an easy one:

Button isn’t a real threat to Hamilton. And Lewis (and probably Jenson) knows it.

Post-China, that didn’t seem to be the case. Jenson was coming off his second win of the season (to none at that point for Lewis), and the new driver to the team seemed to have gelled incredibly well with the crew. The off-season question of whether Jenson could up his game not only to compete with Lewis but better him seemed to have been answered.

But then things started titling. Lewis won back-to-back at Turkey and Canada. And just when Red Bull’s two drivers were starting to bare their claws and Ferrari had to be more focused on how it was messing things up for its drivers on its own (with perhaps some help from the FIA/bad luck), the power situation — if you want to call it that — at McLaren became clear.

Lewis is No. 1. Jenson’s No. 2.

It’s just the way it is.

Before explaining why, quickly, let me point out that while I’m not a huge fan of either of these drivers, I rate both highly. And I still think that Jenson’s qualifying run to get pole at Monaco in 2009 is the best bit of driving we’ve seen in F1 for a couple, maybe three years. They both are well-deserving of their championships.

But this season, Lewis has driven his way to his points. Jenson got his two biggest hauls thanks to his smarts and good strategy, which are part of race craft and part of winning but different from a flat-out awesome drive. Head-to-head, Lewis is driving better, and that fact has started to show more and more, and as a result Lewis is slowly, steadily, building up his lead in the driver’s race.

Now, certainly, Jenson’s run to finish fourth at the British Grand Prix was impressive. It might prove to be season-saving. But if you look at the recent finishes, Jenson has been just a step behind Lewis. It was that way at the European Grand Prix. It was that way in Canada. It was that way in Turkey.

This is making the duo a terrific pairing for McLaren. It has the team ahead in the constructors’ race despite Red Bull having one more victory. The two are consistently scoring points — often a lot of points.

But Lewis is scoring those points a bit more now, he’s qualifying a bit (or even a lot) higher than Jenson, and at this point in the season — a few days before the Germany Grand Prix — he seems to have really settled in. He’s called this year’s McLaren F1 car the best he’s ever driven.

So he’s happy. That’s a good place for an F1 driver to be. (Yes, Mark Webber proved how being ticked off can be good, too.)

And it looks like he should remain happy, the way things are going with him and Jenson. I think it will stay that way until Jenson flat-out out-drives Lewis — not just scores more points in a race, but out-drives him. Right now I don’t see that happening.

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