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Button remains on standby

With just two races of the 2009 Formula 1 season remaining after yesterday’s Japanese Grand Prix, won by Sebastian Vettel, the top three in the drivers’ standings:

Jenson Buton (Brawn-Mercedes) 85

Rubens Barrichello (Brawn-Mercedes) 71

Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull-Renault) 69

Now if you had told Jenson Button at the start of the year that he would have a 14-point lead with just 20 left to play for, he would have bitten your arm off. However, given the way the second half of the season has unfolded, Button – who finished a distant eighth just behind Barrichello – must feel like a man driving through treacle, despite his outwardly cheery appearance.

Although the Briton’s advantage over Barrichello and Vettel remains significant – he could have clinched the title yesterday given a favourable set of results – it must be remembered that F1 titles have been won in spite of greater deficits. Indeed, as recently as 2007, when McLaren teammates Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were battling it out for the championship, Ferrari‘s Kimi Raikkonen overcame a 17-point gap in the final two races – one more than the current gap between Vettel and Button – to snatch the title away from both of them.

How has Button – who held a commanding 26-point lead just seven races in to the season – allowed an unstoppable procession to become a frantic scramble to the finish?

It is categorically not all his fault. However, neither is he entirely blameless.

Certainly, Button and his Brawn team benefitted from being the quickest to successfully adapt to F1’s new technical regulations, an early season advantage which has now been negated by Red Bull and McLaren, and (on occasion) Ferrari and Force India. Having possessed clearly the fastest car during the spring, the Brawns are now regularly second, third or even fourth-best at many circuits. Consequently, since his last win in Turkey back in June, Button has rarely been in a position to challenge for race victories, having to settle instead for the minor placings.

But while Button can do nothing about the relative performance of his team against other competitors it is telling that, having dominated teammate Barrichello throughout the early part of the season, he has been outqualified by the 37-year old Brazilian at seven of the last eight races. That is emphatically not the kind of performance you expect from a world champion-elect, and it is symptomatic of the nervousness and caution which have been increasingly evident in Button’s performances at recent races.

That’s not to say he has fallen apart completely, though. There have been flashes of inspiration, such as his brave, decisive move up the inside of Robert Kubica early on yesterday, but for each of these positive moments there has been an error in qualifying, or a reliance on the misfortune of others to improve his position, such as Adrian Sutil and Heikki Kovalainen’s disagreement over the same piece of tarmac, which moved him up from tenth to eighth.

Now while it is not necessary for a F1 champion to dominate throughout the season (and it’s worth bearing in mind that Button has already won more races in 2009 than reigning champion Hamilton did last year), and there is no reason a driver shouldn’t make the most of whatever good fortune comes his way, it’s still hard to escape the feeling that Button is exercising an excessive degree of caution in tiptoeing his way to the title. In a sport where the minimisation of weight is such an important factor, he appears to be carrying an increasingly heavy weight on his shoulders, much of it self-imposed.

Ultimately it won’t matter if Button wins the championship in the manner of a 400 metre runner who has put everything into the first 200 metres and staggers, exhausted, over the finish line; the fact is he will have won, and the record books will reflect his achievement as such. But as the leading man in F1’s multi-million pound ‘show’, you would be hoping for a bit more panache.

Having started the 2009 season with such a bang, the last few races have felt painfully anti-climactic as the spring hare has metamorphosed into an autumn tortoise. For now, Button edges ever closer to the world championship, but his coronation must remain on standby until the Brazilian GP in two weeks’ time, where a place on the bottom step of the podium will be enough to clinch the title. I wouldn’t count on it being that simple, though.

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

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