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Jenson Button, of McLaren, is hoping to become the ninth driver - and the first Briton in F1 history - to successfully defend his championship title.
Jenson Button, of McLaren, is hoping to become the ninth driver - and the first Briton in F1 history - to successfully defend his championship title.

Bahrain GP preview: what it will take for Jenson Button to keep his crown

For a successful title defence, Jenson Button needs to focus. Matt Majendie on sports psychology.

Jenson Button will line up for tomorrow's Bahrain Grand Prix with the No 1 on his McLaren as the defending world champion. It remains to be seen whether he has the car at his disposal to become only the ninth driver in Formula One history to defend and keep his crown and the first of Britain's 10 world champions to do so. Many past greats have failed to ever pull off a title defence, including three-time champions Sir Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet, and two-time winners Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi.

The overriding key to Button's title defence and any title defence for that matter, according to Stewart, who was world champion in 1969, 1971 and 1973, lies in the head. "The head is much more important than any other element of being a driver," said the Scot. "It's the most important part of any sport personality's potential success. The mind is a strange piece of kit and getting it in order is a very special skill. Once you get your head right, driving is so much easier."

According to Stewart, a host of big names have fallen foul of psychological battles and inner demons in their title defence, pointing to the most recent example of Fernando Alonso, while at McLaren in 2007. The Spaniard had arrived at the team as a two-time world champion but was regularly outdriven by rookie Lewis Hamilton, with Alonso claiming his British teammate was getting preferential treatment.

In the end, both Alonso and Hamilton missed out to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen by a solitary point in that year's title race. "The mind thing ruined Fernando Alonso and his title chance while he was at the McLaren team," insisted Stewart. "And it's not impossible that Jenson will fall into that. He just needs to keep his head." One of the eight drivers in history to have successfully defended an F1 world title is Finland's Mika Hakkinen. Hakkinen achieved the feat at McLaren with back-to-back wins in 1998 and 1999.

Like Stewart, Hakkinen, who now works in driver management, is all too aware of the mind games you can get embroiled in, particularly with teammate. "The mind games thing is unavoidable - it just happens as much as you try to avoid it," explained Hakkinen. "I couldn't help thinking when I was sitting in my car in the team garage looking over at my teammate, 'does he have the same stuff on his car? What's he got different?' It's a dangerous way of thinking and Jenson needs to just forget about Lewis, keep pushing and think about the long-term, and I think he has the head to do that."

Leading sports psychologist Amanda Owens followed Button closely in 2009 and was blown away by Button's calmness despite monumental pressure as the season built to its finale and his championship lead was slowly whittled away. Like Hakkinen and Stewart, she warned Button of the perils of mind games in his title defence. But the other overriding factor for Button from Bahrain onwards is complacency and the danger of easing off having achieved his life-long goal after a decade in F1.

"With the regards to the defence, it depends on the individual but there is a tendency to be complacent," she said. "The focus and determination required to be world champion is immense so the mental fatigue that builds is enormous. To do that for a second season is an incredibly big ask and Jenson almost has to imagine a situation where he's never been world champion." One driver who was never guilty of easing off was Michael Schumacher. In all, Schumacher won seven world titles, including five successful title defences.

The German will be among those vying to deny Button a successful season on his return to the sport at the age of 41, and Schumacher admitted Button might find the 19-race season difficult. "It can be very hard to try to be composed after having achieved what you wanted for so long," said Schumacher. "There is a tendency to ease off, even a tiny bit. But also it is a matter of conditions, materials, the team. As with so many things in life, there is not just that one answer.

"There are plus points in that there is no doubt being world champion gives you more certainty about what you do and how you do it. There is this feeling deep down in the back of your mind that nobody will ever be able to take that away from you any more so it's definitely easier once you've achieved it once. "But at the same time you can be guilty of easing off. A title defence is never easy. Even if it looks it from the outside, inside it was always hard and we were always anxious about failing."

Schumacher was the master of mind games against a host of teammates and rivals. But there are other traps for defending world champions to fall into. For Stewart, the factor of being world champion was, at times, a millstone around his neck. "There are just so many distractions as world champion. It may sound silly but there are endless awards ceremonies, cocktail parties, sponsor requests. You're no longer just a driver anymore but the world champion and there's hardly time to draw breath.

"I know I found that difficult to get my head around and I think it's something that Lewis struggled with as world champion in 2008 even though he might say otherwise." Button was praised for the manner in which he kept his head amid unbelievable pressure last season. The 30-year-old Briton had built up a huge lead after winning six of the opening races. But he found that lead whittled away by Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel. Knowing that he had the mental toughness not to fold will hold Button in good stead, according to Stewart.

"I was so impressed with the way that Jenson had his head sorted last year," he said. "He kept his mind together and I don't think he ever tried too hard nor was he guilty of overdriving. This season he needs to not think about Lewis. So what if Lewis is a wee bit quicker at the start? It's a marathon, not a sprint." Hakkinen backed up Stewart's comments. "Jenson needs to avoid getting nervous if things don't go right on day one. That's difficult because as world champion - rightly or wrongly - you expect absolutely everything to go right for you.

"You don't expect to go off and you expect to have a car worthy of a world champion. He has to avoid getting caught up in that." As for the best piece of advice that Hakkinen, Schumacher and Stewart could give Button, the former champions all have a different take. Hakkinen admitted, "it's difficult to advise but I'd say just think about the long-term as I believe Jenson will win many world titles".

Stewart, meanwhile, repeated his mantra of "keeping his mind together and not trying too hard." Schumacher - a driver renowned for his clarity of thought - struggled to put his finger on it. "There's no one answer, but maybe just avoid being anxious that you could fail." motoring@thenational.ae

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