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A game of three thirds

Kimi Raikkonen won yesterday’s Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps for Ferrari – their first win of a miserable season – and Giancarlo Fisichella added Force India‘s first ever points to their maiden pole position in finishing a close and deserved second. But Formula 1’s microscope remains focussed very much on the form (or lack thereof) of championship leader Jenson Button.

Before yesterday, Button had finished every event this year. The law of averages dictated he was due an accident or mechanical failure sooner or later.

Sooner, as it turned out.

Having qualified a lowly fourteenth on Saturday – the first time all year he had failed to make the top ten – Button’s race lasted half a lap before he was shunted into retirement by Renault‘s Romain Grosjean. Although he was an innocent victim of an accident which also took out reigning champ Lewis Hamilton, his position in the middle of the pack, which left him vulnerable to such an incident, was very much his own fault after a lacklustre qualifying performance.

The Briton’s lead in the race for the drivers’ title, a commanding 26 points after June’s Turkish GP, is now just 16 points with five races remaining. He is lucky it is still that much, given a combination of recent misfortune and poor results for his closest rivals, teammate Rubens Barrichello and Red Bull‘s Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. It’s almost as if no one really wants to win the title.

Button’s problems are both manifold and well chronicled. Some are technical. His car, so dominant in the early part of the season, has been struggling to generate heat (and therefore grip) in its tyres, a problem which is exacerbated by his smooth driving style, which is relatively easy on rubber. The Brawn team has limited finances for car development, and slower-starting but better-funded outfits like McLaren and Ferrari have subsequently closed the gap in performance.

But, perhaps, the single biggest threat to Jenson Button is Button himself. In the last few races he has become increasingly conservative, seeking to defend his points lead rather than attacking races. And, as his rivals have closed in, he has become increasingly reactive and tetchy, resulting in errors in both qualifying and the race itself in Valencia last weekend, followed by the DNF at Spa.

If anything, Jenson Button is thinking too much. Paralysis by analysis, if you will.

It is, of course, easier said than done, but he needs to get his head straight and deal with the mounting pressure. Or else his season, which has looked for so long like a triumphant march to the drivers’ title, is in danger of total implosion.

With all due respect to the now BBC pundit, Button increasingly reminds me of David Coulthard: a talented driver who looked blisteringly fast and silky smooth when his car was well-balanced and he was running at the front of the pack, but far less convincing when the set-up was less to his liking and he had to mix it in the midfield.

Generally speaking, Formula 1 world champions fall into two camps. There are good drivers who maximise their opportunity when presented with the best car in the pack: Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve for instance. And then there are those blessed with the ability to take a less-than-dominant car and win races they have no right to win: think Ayrton Senna in the very average 1993 McLaren, or Michael Schumacher at both Benetton and in his early years at Ferrari. Button has proven he can be the former, but now that he possesses merely one of a number of very good cars (rather than the outright best one), he needs to demonstrate a bit of the latter too. Pootling around like the F1 equivalent of a careful Sunday driver, picking up points from the minor placings and waiting for others to fall by the wayside will no longer cut it.

In short, he has to stop being merely very good and start being great.

Right now, Jenson Button resembles a 400 metre runner who has set off at a blistering pace but is tying up in the home straight. He may still stumble across the finish line first, but it isn’t looking pretty.

Or to utilise another sporting analogy, we often talk about ‘a game of two halves’. Button is having a season of three thirds: having won six of the first seven races this year, he has failed to make the podium in the last five. The drivers’ championship appeared to be a foregone conclusion three months ago; it isn’t now. And while the Brawn team have a big role to play in giving Button the tools he needs to complete the job on the track, it is ultimately how he handles the demons in his own mind that will determine whether he is crowned world champion in Abu Dhabi in November.

If he falls short, he will have no one to blame but himself.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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