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Button’s slick thinking in Melbourne masterclass

After the damp squib that was the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, a little pre-race rain contributed to a spectacular Melbourne race, won by Jenson Button’s quick thinking in exploiting the changing conditions.

As I’ve said previously, it would be a mistake to prematurely dismiss Button’s chances this year. Lewis Hamilton may be the faster driver against the stopwatch, but winning in Formula 1 also requires bold decision-making and sometimes a sprinkling of luck.

Unlike in Bahrain, Button had been on the same level as Hamilton all weekend. He struggled off the start, tapping Fernando Alonso into a spin which – the sprinkling of luck – merely delayed rather than derailed him, and was then overtaken by his McLaren teammate as both struggled for grip on intermediate tyres.

It was at this point – languishing in seventh place on a track still damp from the earlier rain – that Button rolled the dice and made his race-winning, off-the-cuff call to pit immediately for slick dry weather tyres. The immediate and universal reaction of commentators and journalists was that it was a suicidal move, a view that appeared to be vindicated when he immediately slid off at turn three on his out-lap. But, having regained the track, he immediately posted two fastest sector times, prompting a mad scramble for the pitlane. With the advantage of an extra lap on what were now clearly the right tyres for the prevailing conditions, seventh soon became second. And when Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel retired – again – after suspected brake failure pitched him off the track, second became first, a position which Button never looked like relinquishing as he preserved his tyres and controlled the gap at the front with consummate ease to secure his eighth career grand prix victory.

It was a win reminiscent of the type Alain Prost used to achieve with regularity. Preserve the tyres, make good strategic decisions, let other people make mistakes and apply enough speed at the right time to ensure the win – everything else is for show. In short, it was the type of win the new regulations were intended to create, turning grands prix into more strategic races which reward intelligence as well as speed, rather than a series of madcap sprints between pitstops.

After the race, Button underlined the importance of quick thinking in the cockpit:

“It’s a lot easier for the drivers to feel the conditions. We can feel out on the circuit what’s happening. I didn’t have a balance at all on the [intermediates] so I thought let’s get in and stick the slicks on. When I entered the pitlane I thought I’d make a catastrophic mistake because it was soaking wet, but once I got it going the pace was pretty good. It was the right call and I’m very happy that I made it.”

It was a stark contrast to teammate Hamilton, who had a weekend to forget. A run-in with police for ‘over-exuberant driving’ did not help, but should not be used as a reason for a messy qualifying performance which left him down in 11th. And his anger at what turned out to be a poor call by McLaren to bring him in for a second tyre change mid-race spilled over into a reckless last-of the-late-brakers move on Alonso which resulted in the following Mark Webber shunting him off the track. Fortunately, the accident only cost him one place (he finished sixth rather than fifth), but Hamilton’s churlish finger-pointing both during – “Whose call was it to bring me in? Freaking terrible idea” – and after the race only served to underline that Button had taken control of his own destiny, while he had gone with whatever the team decided for him.

“I probably had one of the drives of my life. But unfortunately due to the strategy I was put further back and then I got taken out by Mark Webber. I am happy with the job that I did.”

Hamilton misses the point. As Button said, it’s easier for drivers to feel the conditions, particularly when those conditions are on that razor’s edge where a driver’s intuition can make the right decision faster than the army of engineers watching the telemetry and timing screens. Button made the call; Hamilton passively followed his team strategy. If the latter had also pitted for slicks on lap six rather than seven, he would probably have won.

Beyond McLaren, there were incidents aplenty yesterday, with cars frequently running at close quarters and several overtaking moves. After his first-lap spin, Alonso charged through the field, sweeping slower cars imperiously out of his way. But he would eventually end up bottle-necked behind Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa, and it was the duo’s subsequent struggles on badly grained tyres which led to Hamilton’s ill-fated move. Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi suffered his second front wing failure of the weekend on the opening lap, leading to a spectacular crash which also wiped out Williams’ Nico Hulkenburg and Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi. And we had the you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it sight of seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher – again comprehensively outclassed by Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg – being overtaken by Virgin rookie Lucas di Grassi.

In the same way people overreacted to the Bahrain bore-a-thon, yesterday’s race does not mean that everything is rosy in Bernie Ecclestone’s garden – wet/dry races are invariably good ones. F1 typically only has one or two of these a season, but the fact we have had one so early on will be a crucial boost to Button in a season where many thought Hamilton would destroy him. It certainly underlines there is more than one way to win races: you can either be flat out quicker than everyone else – which is how Hamilton, Vettel and Massa primarily operate – or you can use your brain to manage all the variables better than other drivers (Button, Alonso). That is no bad thing.

It also moves the McLaren subplot on a pace. Button has now staked his claim on Hamilton’s team, and you have to wonder if this will affect the younger man’s performances, which in the past have been fragile under pressure. Certainly Jenson will have filed away Hamilton’s angry outbursts for future reference and he will now know – rather than think – he can beat him fair and square.

In the meantime, it’s on to Malaysia this weekend, which historically tends to produce good racing and (tee hee) the occasional monsoon. Bring it on.

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

2 Responses to Button’s slick thinking in Melbourne masterclass

  1. Oranjepan says:

    Are you trying to say Hamilton is immature – whodathunk? He's definitely got a fragile temprament.He's been nutured by the McLaren team since he was knee-high so there must be a reason why they haven't managed to cure him of it yet. Is he given an easy ride and cossetted or is it something else?

  2. Tim says:

    I think maturity has nothing to do with age. There are some (very much the minority) who are extremely mature from an early age – Messi and Tendulkar, say. Most have to mature at their own pace. And some – I'm thinking Gazza in particular – never do grow up.Hamilton is 25 and in his fourth F1 season. He has certainly been cossetted at McLaren, but they cannot completely protect him from himself. I think we have seen his true, slightly immature nature emerge under extreme pressure – Sunday, obviously, but also the last two races of 2007, where he became so obsessed about Alonso that he effectively gifted the title to Kimi. And the run-in with the Melbourne police for his hooning exploits further highlights this.Lewis is a tremendously fast driver, but he has had the team built around him by others – as opposed to moulding it around himself the hard way. I remain unconvinced he can win races with his brain, because he allows all the decisions to be made for him. And when the team makes a bad call – it happens, live with it – to point the finger so blatantly and publicly made him look churlish and unprofessional, as well as highlighting one of his weaknesses.

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