Numbers, big and small, have for ever been an integral part of motorsport. From the fractions of a second that can secure a pole position in MotoGP to the statute figures that detail the distance of a race, such as the Indy 500. This weekend, the first race of Formula One's new season has the attraction of four world champions taking to the Bahrain International Circuit.
Such is each man's ruthless resolve that between Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher, there are 11 Drivers' Championship titles. For this reason, when the quartet appeared together yesterday for the first time - along with Felipe Massa - the laughing, joking and teasing was savoured by those in attendance; such scenes, on-watchers understood, will not last long. Button described the season as "possibly one of the most competitive ever" and spoke of the necessity to lead from the start, much as he did last year when he won six of the first seven races on the way to taking the title with BrawnGP.
"It's important to be strong out of the blocks," said the 30-year-old, sat next to Hamilton, his new teammate at McLaren. "The competition is very fierce, but that's why it is so exciting. This season should be electric, and if it is not we are doing something wrong." Hamilton concurred, adding that he was intent on winning in Bahrain and was drawing only positives from driving in the same team as Button.
Much has been made of the two Britons' partnership and whether it can work; in a sport full of egos, one of these two fiercely competitive drivers will have to accept second best. But as the pair whispered and giggled to each other, they appeared more akin to best friends than racing rivals. When asked if such camaraderie gave them confidence that they could combine to create a winning team, Button joked that the performance was "all for show", before Hamilton added: "We're actually focusing on a potential move to acting in the future."
Such bonhomie was not apparent between Ferrari's distant duo of Massa and Alonso. Outspoken and controversial in the past, the two drivers will need to remain focused on the task at hand if they are to prosper together in Scuderia red. Schumacher, not renowned for his humour, sat in front of the McLaren pair, flanked by the Ferraris, and smiled his way through a 30-minute conference. Such is the interest in his return after three years away that the Mercedes GP paddock has been constantly swarmed with photographers and the number of registered German media has "noticeably risen".
When Button was asked about the return of the 41-year-old, the Englishman replied with a grin: "It's great to have Michael back, because it makes me feel young again." Schumacher smiled, acknowledging the joke, yet, ominously, when it came to answering a question directed at him, the former Ferrari driver appeared as focused as he was when at the height of his considerable powers. "What are you looking forward to most?" he was asked.
"The green light," came the answer. "Do you prefer the new car?" "I like the fastest car, whatever that is." "Does the new points system change your approach?" "No, you still want to score the 25; that's the strategy." The only hint of humour Schumacher showed was when asked who he thought may be his biggest rival. Rather than answer, he steered past it like a tame chicane: "At my age, I keep forgetting things if they are too long," he said with a wink, before departing.