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Button's Melbourne swap-shop

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Sarah Holt | 12:54 UK time, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Australia may have ceded this season's opener to Bahrain but Formula 1's collective excitement at being back in Melbourne is undiminished.

From Jack Brabham to the Bathurst 1,000, Australians love their motorsport and the city shows it by embracing F1's arrival in a series of imaginative events on and off the track.

Jenson Button had the privilege of being the first driver to taste the green asphalt of the leafy Albert Park circuit on Tuesday.

But the world champion's four-lap spin was a rather unusual refresher for Sunday's race as he swapped cars with reigning V8 Supercar champion Jamie Whincup.

Button squeezed into Team Vodafone's beefy tin-topped Holden Commodore while Whincup tried his hand at open-wheel racing by borrowing Lewis Hamilton's 2008 championship winning McLaren.

Button and Whincup's racing ambitions began with karting but while Button, 30, forged his way through Europe's single-seater formulas, Australian Whincup, 27, found himself drawn to touring cars.

Over the last two seasons each reached the pinnacle of their sports, with Button claiming the 2009 F1 world title and Whincup storming to back-to-back titles in V8, perceived to be the elite formula in Australian motorsport.

As the pair of champions prepared to enter the unknown at Albert Park by swapping chargers, there was time for a final word of advice.

"Give it hell," urged Button. "Yeah, likewise," grinned Whincup. "Go as hard as you can."

Jamie Whincup and Jenson Button in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Grand PrixChampions Whincup (left) and Button (right) compare notes before driving one another's cars

Whincup was given a push out of the pit lane and after a sputtering start down the straight he was off at full pelt.

It may have been his first time in an F1 car but an unofficial timing saw the Melbourne-born driver clock one minute, 57 seconds - the same time as his fastest circuit lap in a V8 car.

And if you want to know what it's like to drive an F1 car - even if you are already a champion behind the wheel - Whincup summed it up in a single, breathless word.

"Unbelievable," he said, shaking his head as he pulled himself out of the McLaren cockpit.

"I had half a lap at half throttle but then the car just kicked in and I've never felt anything like it before.

"The car just does everything right, the harder you push the more grip you have and if you hit the brake it feels like it'll stop on a 20 cent piece.

"The strain on my head was unbelievable because I don't get anywhere near the g-force in my V8 car.

"My mate had said to me 'it's going to destroy your life driving an F1 car because nothing else will come close' and he was right. It's just a rocket ship."

The V8 spat and chewed its way around the circuit with Button at the helm, powering along at 650 horsepower compared to the purr of the McLaren's F1 engine, which runs at around a slick 750bhp.

After his rare stint in a closed-top car Button emerged saying: "It's like an oven in there!

"It's so different to driving an F1 car, it's very heavy and there's not a lot of downforce.

"I ran off the tarmac at one point and I'd be closing my eyes at that point in an F1 car, but in this thing it was great. It was very impressive."

So, was it a case of once bitten twice shy or does either driver fancy swapping again when it comes down to business in Sunday's V8 and F1 races?

"It's one thing having a drive but lining up on the grid, well it'd be scary," confessed Whincup. "I'd need a few more miles without doubt."

Button added: "I've always said in the past that after F1 I'm sure I'll look at doing something else - and this could be a possibility."

Watch out Whincup, Button could well be after your title next.


It was back to the classroom for Mark Webber on Tuesday as he paid a visit to Melbourne University.

A fellow journalist and I played an amusing game of "Where's Webber" as we asked students basking in the labyrinthine grounds during a sunny lunch break if they'd seen the Aussie F1 hero.

A few blank looks later, and the Red Bull driver was eventually found demonstrating a pit stop.

Webber and the team's head of car engineering Paul Monaghan had dropped in to give a lecture to mechanical engineering students learning how to design and build an F1 car as part of their degree.

"The talk we gave went down a storm," said Webber, who flew straight to Australia to prepare for his home grand prix after finishing eighth in the Bahrain GP.

"They had some really fascinating questions. Growing up, F1 seems so far away but people are still passionate about wanting to work in the sport."

Webber's Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel will be getting some lessons of his own later in the week when he learns how to throw a boomerang.

Getting a boomerang to come full circle is one thing but ensuring his reliability problems don't come back to haunt him in Melbourne, is a more serious matter altogether.


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