Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button rivalry could be explosive

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer
Fernando Alonso and Jensen Button
Pleased to beat you, sir: Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button have three world titles between them

The admiration was clear, both in Jenson Button's face and in what he said.

Sitting alongside Fernando Alonso as they were announced as McLaren-Honda drivers for 2015, the esteem in which Button held his new team-mate shone through.

"It's very special to be sat up here as a race driver alongside this guy," he said. "I'm not one to shy away from new challenges and to race alongside this guy is a big one, but an exciting one."

I'm completely fine - Alonso

Alonso-Button - three world titles and 47 grand prix wins between them - is arguably the strongest line-up on the grid, even if Mercedes and Ferrari might have something to say about that.

Putting them together will provide a direct comparison of two of the biggest stars in the sport, whatever the competitive state of McLaren-Honda in 2015.

So how big is the "challenge" Button faces once Alonso, who is missing the first race of the season to recover from concussion suffered in a testing accident, returns to the car?

Hamilton: The common denominator

Alonso is the drivers' driver, the man they nearly all regard as the best there is - Formula 1's gold standard, even more so in many eyes than world champion Lewis Hamilton.

Felipe Massa, who spent four years as Alonso's team-mate at Ferrari, says he rates the Spaniard higher even than Michael Schumacher, another former team-mate.

"Fernando is an amazing driver; his talent is very complete," Massa says. "He is one of the quickest drivers but also one of the most consistent, most aggressive. He has everything. It is not easy to be his team-mate."

Felipe Massa
Felipe Massa was Alonso's team-mate at Ferrari for four years

Alonso and Button have both been team-mates to Hamilton at McLaren, so an analysis of what happened between them could give a sense of how the team's 2015 line-up might compare.

At McLaren in 2007, Alonso and Hamilton were incredibly closely matched.

They finished the season tied on points, winning four races each. Either could and arguably should have won the title but both lost out by one point to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton was classified ahead of Alonso only on results countback.

In qualifying, it was equally tight. Hamilton was seven-six ahead at races where a direct comparison could be made, and nine-eight over the season. And on average qualifying pace over 17 grands prix, there was again almost nothing to choose between them.

Of Alonso's team-mates, only Hamilton has proved anything like real competition for the Spaniard. He has pretty much destroyed all the others. And his partnership with Button is so potentially fascinating because Button was much more of a threat to Hamilton than many expected him to be.

Over three seasons together, Button actually out-scored Hamilton in terms of points. That comparison, though, is skewed by 2011, when Hamilton allowed personal problems to affect his driving and had his own annus horribilis.

Alonso v Hamilton
Fernando AlonsoLewis Hamilton
236 (235 starts)Races148 (148 starts)
2 (2005, 2006)Titles2 (2008, 2014)
1,767Career points1, 486

In their other two seasons together, 2010 and 2012, Hamilton finished comfortably ahead. And in terms of pure pace, he was definitively the faster driver - by 0.232secs a lap on average, out-qualifying Button 44-13 overall.

There were, though, times when Button flat beat Hamilton, both in qualifying and race. And some of Button's best races came while doing so - such as their duel in the damp in the final laps of the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix; or Button's crushingly dominant win from pole in Belgium in 2012.

You would have to think Button fancied his chances of doing the same to Alonso from time to time.

"Jenson is a very easy-going guy," Hamilton says. "He's very talented and hard-working. I'll be as interested as anyone to see how he does. Fernando is obviously very quick, but I think Jenson will be fine."

The details of their talents

Despite this - despite his 15 wins, his championship title and some of the truly great drives he has produced during his career - Button remains underrated.

But the fact is that, on his day, he is a match for anyone. And in wet-dry races, where a driver has to extrapolate the grip available on an ever-changing track surface, he is simply the best there is.

Where he struggles is with consistency. His remarkable feel for the grip of the car makes him super-sensitive to its messages - and his reaction to them is extreme.

In terms of what they like from a car, Button and Alonso are remarkably similar - both work hard to achieve a stable rear and prefer a responsive front. In that sense, they should make a strong team. But where they differ dramatically is in how they respond if that is not what they get.

Give Button a car he likes, and he is formidable, his beautifully smooth style making him very hard to beat. To the point that even Alonso - like Hamilton - will probably find there are times in 2015 when he simply cannot match Button.

Alonso v Button
Fernando AlonsoJenson Button
236 (235 starts)Races268 (266 starts)
2 (2005, 2006)Titles1 (2009)
1,767Career points1, 198

But the minute the car strays from that ideal, whether it is a front end that will not do what he wants, or particularly a nervous rear, Button struggles.

Where Button demands perfection, Alonso is the master improviser. His ability is both proactive and responsive - exceptionally so.

However the car is behaving, Alonso can somehow force it into doing what he wants, get a lap time that others could not, and do it consistently, pounding out lap after lap right on the limit. No-one is better at getting the best from an imperfect car.

So, if the McLaren is anything other than perfectly suited to Button's style, the Englishman could have a real problem on his hands. The danger in that scenario is that Alonso will make Button look very ordinary, just as he did Raikkonen for most of 2014.

Raikkonen's biggest problem last year was that he could not adapt to the Ferrari's poor front-end grip as effectively as Alonso. As a result, he was annihilated. Out-qualified to the tune of more than half a second a lap on average, Raikkonen scored only a third of Alonso's points.

But the few times the Ferrari's front end gripped in the way Raikkonen wanted, the Finn was able to challenge Alonso.

When the McLaren is to Button's liking, the same may well be the case for him, too.

The ability to focus within

Button has a keen sense of his own strengths and weaknesses and is well aware he lacks the adaptability of his new team-mate.

But one of his biggest strengths is his iron self-confidence, his refusal to be out-psyched if his team-mate is faster.

He accepts there will be days when he is beaten - probably the majority in the case of a team-mate of the quality of Hamilton or Alonso - and that there will be nothing he can do about it.

Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button
Alonso says he expects no problems with team-mate Button

But he accepts, too, that there is no shame in that, no need to fret about it. So he can be expected to work as he has for the last few years - focus on his own strengths, work on getting the car to do what he wants. Because he also knows that, in a car he likes, he will give anyone a serious run for his money.

What if Button beats Alonso?

Alonso has been challenged by a team-mate so rarely in his career that it will be fascinating to see how he responds when it happens, as it presumably will at times in 2015.

People who know him well say the one thing Alonso cannot handle is being beaten by his team-mate.

Jenson Button looks back at memorable Formula 1 career

These, though, are historical observations based on a time when he was still in his early- to mid-20s.

A lot of time has passed since then, time in which Alonso, now 33, says he has matured and developed a greater sense of perspective on the world. He says he expects no problems with Button.

"McLaren-Honda is not McLaren-Mercedes," Alonso says, referring to his tumultuous season at McLaren in 2007. "Jenson is not Lewis and I am not the same."

A historical analogy

Alonso has made much of the fact he joined McLaren-Honda because of the reformed partnership's historical resonance.

Alonso's first kart was painted in the orange and white colours of the McLaren-Honda cars of the late 1980s, his imagination fired by the domination the team enjoyed with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

Senna was Alonso's childhood hero; Button admires Prost. And the comparison goes far deeper than boyhood hero-worship.

Alonso shares aspects of Senna's personal intensity and vivid, attacking style on the track. Button's character has echoes of the more laidback Prost, his driving the same liquid elegance. Like Senna and Prost, Alonso and Button are intelligent and steely personalities, well able to handle themselves in the notoriously tough environment of F1.

Back in 1988-89, there was no doubt Senna was generally the faster of the two McLaren drivers.

Equally, there were days - at the French, Portuguese and Spanish Grands Prix of 1988, for example - when Prost got his car just so and a befuddled Senna could not get near him. And, in terms of points scored over a season, there was little to choose between them.

Might history be about to repeat itself?