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Champions go back to front

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F1 Mole | 15:20 UK time, Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The topsy-turvy 2009 Formula 1 season means the biblical prophecy "the last will be first and the first will be last" has come to pass for some drivers.

The pacesetting Brawn has catapulted Jenson Button from last season's humdrum 18th place in the standings for Honda into a 21-point lead at the top of the drivers' tree.

But fate has not been so kind to former champions Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.

Alonso, world champion in 2005 and 2006, is ninth in the table, followed in 10th by 2008 champion Hamilton and his predecessor Raikkonen.

While Raikkonen's Ferrari team say they have switched focus to 2010, there were signs in Germany that McLaren and Renault have made significant steps forward.

Hamilton started in fifth for McLaren, before a prang on the first lap effectively ended his race, while Alonso eked enough out of his Renault to set the fastest lap of the weekend.

Lewis Hamilton gave up on his title defence at the Turkish GP

For once the former McLaren team-mates are agreed; both expect further progress in Hungary.

McLaren arrive at the Hungaroring with further upgrades to the MP4-24 predicted to yield "a sustained attack towards the front of the field", while Alonso says Renault's updates are "much more competitive".

The pair may well be gearing themselves up to lock horns at the front but The Mole tracked them down to find out how world champions really cope in reduced circumstances.

"I still enjoy fighting," says Alonso, who had the TV cameras glued to his battle for 13th place with Hamilton and BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica at the British GP.

"It may be a more fun race to drive because I need to make up some places but if you are fighting at the back it's not a normal fight.

"You don't care too much if you lose or gain the battle."

Since accepting over the Turkish GP weekend that his title defence was over, Hamilton agrees his main motivation is the thrill of the competition rather than its rewards.

"You are still racing, regardless," says the 24-year-old. "As drivers we love to race.

"Whatever battle I get, whether it is for last or at the front, it is exciting."

Exciting maybe, but the annals of Formula 1 show there are 16 one-time world champions in the sport - and Hamilton will want to make sure he doesn't stay as one of them.

In the fickle world of F1, champions often find their push for multiple titles blunted by their equipment or by their desire.

Jody Scheckter retired at the age of 30 just one year after winning the title for Ferrari in 1979.

The South African felt his desire had been quenched and won just two points as he strolled through 1980 to fulfil his contract with the Italian marque.

The mercurial James Hunt also admitted to losing his appetite for the dangerous sport after dramatically capturing the 1976 title - although a troublesome McLaren the following season hardly helped his defence.

James Hunt

"It's difficult, when you're used to a good car and you go to a bad one, to maintain the interest and the competitive edge," Hunt said.

Remarkably, Damon Hill had already been told he had no future at Williams before he had even won the 1996 crown and was forced to spend 1997 scrabbling around at the back of the pack for Arrows.

There should be no such worries for Hamilton and Alonso.

Their desire remains undimmed and, with Hamilton signed up to McLaren until 2012 and Alonso strongly linked with a move to Ferrari next season, the equipment to match their talent seems secure in the long-term.

"I'm happy the fans enjoy my battles now but they should wait for more exciting battles for more important things in the future," says Alonso.

"When you are fighting for the podium or for the victory, the fight is more intense and the adrenaline is very high."

Last season, Hamilton replaced Alonso as the youngest ever F1 champion, at the age of 23 years and 301 days.

When it comes to winning another title, time is on their side - but for the former world champions there is no time like the present.

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