ABU DHABI // Jenson Button will face a tough challenge to compete alongside his new McLaren-Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton next season, according to Mercedes GP chief executive Nick Fry. McLaren's all-British driving duo will line up alongside each other for the first time at Bahrain's 2010 season opener on March 14, after the Formula One world champion moved from Mercedes GP last month having also helped the team, then racing under the Brawn GP name, to the constructors' championship last season.
"He has a mighty task ahead of him. To compete against Lewis [Hamilton] on home territory is a big thing to take on," said Fry. With each driver having won a world championship, Fry believed McLaren will treat both equally and do all they can to avoid a repeat of the uneasy relationship they endured the last time they welcomed on board a reigning world champion - 2005 and 2006 winner Fernando Alonso - who left the team after one turbulent year after falling out with Hamilton.
"I don't think Jenson will play second fiddle. The bigger Formula One teams are more than capable of supplying two drivers with the same equipment," he said. "I don't think there is any sense that he will be the number two driver, I think they will be competing equally." Speaking at the Arabian Sponsorship Forum at the capital's Emirates Palace Hotel earlier this week, the Mercedes GP chief executive said he had been saddened by Button's departure.
"I was very disappointed Jenson left. From a personal point of view, he had been with us for seven years, but obviously he was looking for another challenge. I think he's got that racing against Lewis, who is clearly world class," he said. "Last year we had aimed to win the championship and he had achieved that. Where Jenson will need to get up to speed quickly is in understanding a new team. It takes some time to do and it will be a big challenge in itself."
There has been much change for the team after Mercedes completed a takeover of the team, with team principal Ross Brawn and Fry remaining in their roles and maintaining a 24 per cent share in the Brackley outfit. Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments acquired a 30 per cent stake in the takeover. Speculation remains over who will replace Button in the team alongside new driver Nico Rosberg, with the seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher favourite to complete an all-German driving team on the grid.
Fry is confident the team can be front-runners next season, despite the uncertainty surrounding the identity of their No 2 driver. "I think we can be a top contender next year, undoubtedly," said Fry. "Our chances will remain very good, with or without Michael [Schumacher]. You just have to look at what we have achieved this year. Before the start of this season Jenson had only won one race, he was by no means a proven winner. In fact it was Rubens who had won nine races up until that point."
Rule changes for the next year have banned refuelling during the race - a restriction Fry believed would make a significant impact on the contenders for the championship - with fuel consumption likely to be an issue as well as which driver can perform best with a heavy car. "The person who controls [the fuel] the best is likely to win the series," Fry explained. "The car is going to be very heavy at the start. The effect of [the additional fuel] on a 600 kilo car is quite dramatic.
"There will be surprises next year, because nobody really understands the effects of this much fuel on the car. The tyres will be harder again. Racing into the corners with a full tank of fuel on relatively hard tyres will make it extremely exciting. "I think technically we've got a good chance next year and I think we'll have two drivers who, undoubtedly, can deliver that." A return to Formula One for German great Schumacher with the Mercedes GP team is widely anticipated. The 40-year-old driver was poised make a comeback earlier this year by stepping in for the injured Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, but was prevented from doing so by a neck injury.
Fry acknowledged he would be thrilled to see Schumacher, who works as an adviser to Ferrari, team up with Rosberg, suggesting the ball is very much in Schumacher's court. "I would clearly be very happy if it did happen. He has to decide whether he wants to do it or not, and that decision is purely on his side," he said. "The return of someone who has won seven world championships to any team would have a massive impact, not just on that team, but on the sport on general. It would be great for Formula One if it happened," he added.
"We are aiming to have the two best drivers we possibly can driving for the team, which would be a formidable pairing. "If Michael were to decide not to drive then there are other alternatives we would be happy with." firstname.lastname@example.org