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Three drivers, two former world champions, one goal . . .

One of the lazy stereotypes of modern sport is that there are no "characters" any more, and Formula One suffers especially badly from this perception.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at the unveiling of McLaren's MP-27 F1 car for 2012
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at the unveiling of McLaren's MP-27 F1 car for 2012

It might, indeed, be true that the days when a James Hunt wouldn't so much flirt with danger as invite it upstairs for a night of unbridled passion have vanished for ever, but the notion that the modern generation are all blank-eyed automatons is both absurd and a travesty of the truth.

On the contrary, when the action commences in Australia this weekend, the three Britons on the Melbourne grid could scarcely be more contrasting, both in their temperaments and the scale of their ambitions for 2012.

There is Jenson Button, the unflappable character who advertises grooming products, enjoys a harmonious relationship with his family entourage, and could star as Skid Solo if Hollywood ever gets round to shooting the movie; his McLaren colleague, Lewis Hamilton, who can be mercurial and mesmerising, but also volatile and volcanic of temper, and who spent large dollops of last season looking as if he needed a few weeks on the couch with Dr Frasier Crane; then, there is Scotland's Paul Di Resta, who is edgy, disinclined to let words supersede actions, and who resembles Andy Murray in being ferociously driven by an inner quest for perfectionism which has burned since he was a little boy growing up in the 1990s.

Of the three, it is probably Hamilton who has most to prove in the months ahead, because the 2008 world champion has been grappling with his inner demons, a by-product of his much-publicised split from his pop star girlfriend, Nicole Scherzinger, and, whereas most observers expected him to rule the roost in his partnership with Button, it was the latter who emerged with the better all-round performances as last summer progressed. Indeed, whether exchanging insults with Felipe Massa or blowing his stack with assorted stewards, Hamilton's baleful glare was one of the enduring images of the campaign, and although he insists that he is in a better place, one suspects it won't require many fresh setbacks for those who go near him to feel they are picnicking on Vesuvius.

He and Scherzinger have been re-united, he has recently relocated from Geneva to Monaco, and his preparations have thus far gone smoothly – "I'm going to get off the plane in Australia with a big smile on my face" – but Hamilton thrives on adrenalin, momentum, and pushing himself to the max, and appreciates that nothing matters until qualifying starts on Saturday.

If his optimism about McLaren's improvement is justified, he has every chance of challenging Sebastian Vettel; but if, as transpired 12 months ago, he suffers the ignominy of being forced to watch his German opponent speed off into the far horizon, Hamilton won't take long to switch from Daddy Cool to Raging Bull.

Button, by comparison, has developed into a genuinely substantial figure, and it seems like an awfully long time since he was in the slough of despond after finishing a desperate 18th with Honda in the 2008 campaign. Ever since, he has bade adieu to the playboy headlines, learned from adversity, knuckled down to making the most of any opportunities, and acquired the knack of transforming an old banger – such as last year's McLaren vehicle – into a vibrant threat to any rivals.

Button will enter the arena in Albert Park in the knowledge that, should he reproduce his heroics from the previous title joust, it is probably Hamilton who will be moving on to another team in 2013, which is not the script that anybody would have anticipated at this stage of the two Briton's careers.

Yet, if it has been a surprising development to many observers, Button, at 32 the older of the duo, who was king of the world in 2009, appears relaxed in the spotlight and speaks fluently and convincingly about his belief that Vettel won't dominate the proceedings as emphatically in the months ahead as he did in 2011. "I think the car's good. It feels good and I'm very happy with it. Seb is the favourite because he has won two championships, but I don't think Red Bull will have the advantage they had at the start of last season," insists Button and, if this is mere propaganda, he could outbluster Lord Haw-Haw. "There's nothing I would look at and say: 'That's an area where we are weak' or 'maybe that could have gone better'. No, it has all gone right for us at the moment."

Di Resta might privately wish he could echo these sentiments. But the tough little Bathgate competitor has different objectives for 2012, which basically involve him outscoring his Force India colleague, Nico Hulkenberg, and enhancing the favourable impression he created in his debut year, while ignoring tabloid gossip that he has been lined up to replace Michael Schumacher when the veteran finally quits.

It can be difficult to cope with this endless speculation, and harder still to focus on grappling and scrapping for eighths and ninths in every race, but Di Resta will never be accused of launching into poetic flights of fancy and he has one clear target in the looming jousts. "I don't think anybody can say they know for sure [how things will unfold]. All the teams around us look strong and have been consistent in testing, so we just have to wait and see," said the 25-year-old. "It's too early to make any judgments, but, to begin with, our goal is simply to try to pick up points at every race."

If he achieves that, it will be a terrific advance for Di Resta. He, alone of the three, has to ponder life away from the podium for now. Yet, ultimately, only two of them – at most – will be celebrating come November, and the fashion in which they tackle German foes, whether Vettel or Hulkenberg, will decide their destinies.

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