In advance of 2013, there has been an unusual amount of activity in the driver market. Only Ferrari, Red Bull and Lotus are fielding unchanged driver line-ups, which leaves eight teams with the task of introducing new team-mates to each other. One such team is McLaren, where Lewis Hamilton has been replaced by Mexican Sergio Perez. As a result of the move, Jenson Button finds himself leading a team for the first time since his championship-winning season at Brawn in 2009.
For the past three seasons, Button and Hamilton have been team-mates at McLaren. While it was generally expected that Button would be in the shadow of 2008 Champion Hamilton, the reality was an unusual equality of top level drivers. Hamilton had a slight edge in terms of results over the thee-year period, winning ten races to Button’s eight and taking 8 pole position to Button’s solitary pole at Spa in 2012, but Button had the edge on points, with 672 compared to Hamilton’s 657. Neither driver finished lower than fifth in the Drivers’ Championship, with Button second in 2011, albeit some way behind Sebastian Vettel who dominated that season.
Now the British dream team is split up. Hamilton is off to Mercedes (which is in large part Button’s old Brawn team) and Button stays with McLaren to partner Sergio Perez. The young Mexican Perez presents a completely different challenge to Hamilton for Button. When Button joined McLaren, Hamilton had three seasons under his belt and had already been startlingly successful, having won 11 races and the 2008 World Championship. Perez, on the other hand, has had just two seasons for midfield team Sauber with his best results three podiums in 2012. Perez is certainly quick, but he is only 22 years old, and his youth has shown on the track in a few incidents, particularly in the latter part of 2012. Perez is also not a first-language English speaker, which could create something of a language barrier at his new, ultra-British team.
Button is entering his 14th consecutive season of Formula One and looking to build on an already successful career that includes 15 race victories and the 2009 World Championship. He is comfortable at McLaren, and has arguably produced his best driving since joining the Woking-based team. Button is the ideal partner and perhaps mentor for the young Perez, as he has a cool head and a wealth of experience to share. Importantly for McLaren’s development, Button is only 32 years old, and could still be in Formula One for some time.
McLaren had arguably the quickest car in 2012. Button suffered during the middle part of the season as the team struggled to set his car up for the 2012 Pirelli tyres, but Hamilton would have been a title contender to the end if not for recurring car failures in the second half of the season. With technical regulations largely unchanged for 2013, it is highly likely that the McLarens will be fighting for the World Championship again, and Button is the man expected to lead that challenge. His first task as team leader, however, will be be to beat his young and exciting team-mate.
Sergio Perez has impressed since the moment he stepped into an F1 car. He drives incredibly smoothly, and displays patience and maturity beyond his years to get great results out of a car that is not bad, but arguably not a front-runner. For some time it has been clear that he deserves a drive with a top team, and such an opportunity arose when McLaren asked him to replace the departing Lewis Hamilton.
This season has seen three particularly impressive drives from Perez. In Malaysia he came second to Fernando Alonso in very difficult weather conditions, a mistake in the closing stages ending what looked like a realistic shot at victory. The Canadian Grand Prix saw another mature drive, this time in the dry, to take third place from 15th on the grid. Most recently, the young Mexican made superb use of his tyres at Monza to finish second from 12th on the grid.
Although McLaren certainly wanted to keep Lewis Hamilton, his departure leaves them with the opportunity to nurture a young talent. Jenson Button is staying with the team for the foreseeable future, which provides the driver line-up with the experience needed to take McLaren forward. Perez can learn from his more experienced team-mate and use his own considerable talent to develop himself into a world-class driver.
For McLaren, the loss of Hamilton may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Perez will demand a lower salary than Hamilton, which leaves more of the budget available to develop the car. Considering that McLaren will have to pay for their Mercedes engines for the first time in 2013, any such financial flexibility will be most welcome.
Perez has landed firmly with his bum in the butter. After only two years in Formula One, he finds himself with a drive at the second most successful team in Formula One history (after Ferrari, of course) at a time when the team has been getting more and more competitive. He should realistically be a title contender in 2013, perhaps even more so than Hamilton will be at Mercedes.
Until last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, Jenson Button had never started on pole for McLaren. He made up for that by lapping Spa-Francorchamps three tenths faster than anyone else in qualifying on Saturday, setting up the ideal start to Sunday’s race.
In the race, Button was untouchable, disappearing into a comfortable lead in the first few laps as all hell broke loose behind him in a massive first corner crash, and controlling his pace thereafter. He led every lap of the race, the first time that has been done this season, and took a thoroughly-deserved second win of 2012 to put himself back in contention for the title.
Button’s performance was masterful, reminiscent of the early part of 2009 where he was easily faster than the rest of the field. The difference is that this year’s McLaren is not nearly as dominant as the Brawn car was in 2009. Button has developed massively as a driver since winning the World Championship, and yesterday’s win was a demonstration that he is right up there with the best in Formula One at the moment.
If Button was impressive, Romain Grosjean was precisely the opposite. After appearing to be a little hot-headed at the start of the season, the Frenchman seemed to have calmed down a bit recently and was beginning to get on with the job of finishing races. At Spa, however, his rash streak made an unwelcome comeback as he pushed Lewis Hamilton onto the grass on the way to the first corner. That started a chain-reaction that resulted in Grosjean spinning through the air over the back of Sergio Perez’s Sauber and perilously close to Fernando Alonso’s head. Miraculously, no-one was injured, but it was a stark reminder of the dangers involved in open-cockpit racing.
The first corner accident took Grosjean, Hamilton, Alonso and Perez out of the race, and shook up the order behind Button quite significantly. Raikkonen had escaped the drama and was running second. Behind him, the Force India pair of Hulkenberg and Di Resta found themselves third and fourth, followed by the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher in a surprising fifth from 13th on the grid.
By the end of the race, the order had settled a bit, and Button led home Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Nico Hulkenberg finished an impressive fourth, with team-mate Paul Di Resta tenth to complete a double points finish for Force India. Felipe Massa took a credible fifth place, followed by Mark Webber who was lacking straight-line speed and struggling to overtake as a result. Michael Schumacher had looked set for a top-four finish until high tyre degradation forced him to pit and he subsequently lost sixth gear. He nursed the car home in seventh, ahead of the Toro Rosso pair of Vergne and Ricciardo, who game their team a much needed double helping of points.
The first corner incident is likely to result in some discussion about head protection in Formula One cars, and talk of closed cockpits is already beginning to resurface. Perhaps of more concern is the lack of peripheral vision afforded to the drivers by the current high cockpit sides. Although the design greatly assists in protecting the driver from harm, it also greats a very large blind spot alongside the car. Solving that problem while maintaining safety is a great challenge for the rule-makers of Formula One.
The championship has opened up quite a bit after Spa, as Button won with Alonso and Hamilton not scoring. Vettel’s second place finish pushes him up to second in the table, within a race victory of Alonso. Kimi Raikkonen’s consistency has paid off, as he is now just 33 points off the championship lead. With eight races left in the season and the cars as closely matched as they are, the title fight is far from over.
Jenson Button won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. Since then, however, his season has gone steadily downhill. Four finishes outside the points in eight races makes for a pretty miserable season so far, considering that Button was runner-up in the 2011 World Championship.
On Sunday in Valencia, his poor form continued. Button qualified a disappointing ninth and finished eighth, never looking particularly competitive throughout the race. He was a little unfortunate, in that he made a pitstop just before the safety car came out which cost him some positions, but a much higher finish was probably not on the cards anyway.
By contrast with Button’s Valencia performance, Lewis Hamilton put the other McLaren on the front row of the grid, and then drove a steady (albeit not markedly quick) race to run third until he was unceremoniously shoved into the wall by Pastor Maldonado with two laps remaining.
As an indicator of the difference in performance between the team-mates, Button was four tenths off Hamilton in Q3 of qualifying, and their fastest race laps were eight tenths apart, with Hamilton again on top. Eight tenths of a second difference in the same car is enormous. Button will not be happy to be so far off the pace.
The next race at Silverstone is Button and McLaren’s home grand prix. He will be looking to up his game significantly in front of the British fans. McLaren will likely bring a decent upgrade to the British Grand Prix, which should also help matters.
Jenson Button made a mistake in the Malaysian Grand Prix that cost him a probable decent haul of points. Under braking for turn 9, Button locked his rear tyres. As a result, he hit the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan, who was ahead of Button at the time (rain really does shake up the order). Button broke his front wing and had to pit for a new nose, costing him a massive chunk of time and therefore any chance of points in the race. There was no apparent damage to Karthikeyan’s HRT.
No-one really thought anything of the incident. Button made a mistake, he paid the price. The car he hit was only an HRT. No big deal.
But on closer inspection of the crash, Button exhibits a blatant disregard for the car in front of him. He obviously failed to slow down enough to take the corner without hitting the HRT. Under those circumstances, a driver would normally run wide in the corner. But Button isntead tried to duck up the inside of Karthikeyan.
Button must have known that he would not be able to take the inside line. He was simply moving too quickly. His actions, then, suggest that he went in to the corner knowing he could do damage to another car. The fact that the HRT survived the incident is beside the point. Button caused an avoidable collision, which is generally punished harshly in Formula One.
So where’s the penalty?
Karthikeyan himself was harshly punished for a later incident with Sebastian Vettel, where Vettel lapped the HRT, and as he went past, the front wing of Karthikeyan’s car punctured the left rear tyre of the Red Bull. It could easily be argued that Vettel was over-aggressive in returning to the racing line after lapping the HRT, but it is Karthikeyan who had 20 seconds added to his race time.
The stewards were obviously inconsistent in Sunday’s race. Button was wrong, he should be penalised. Karthikeyan was not particularly wrong in the incident with Vettel, yet he was harshly penalised. Why are HRT being marginalised and the front-runners favoured?
Jenson Button has won the season opening Grand Prix in Australia. Button led McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton into the first corner and was never challenged from then on, as the McLarens translated their qualifying pace into blistering race pace.
Michael Schumacher passed Romain Grosjean into the first corner to take third, but was unable to keep pace with Button and Hamilton, who quickly pulled out a commanding lead. Schumacher was quickly under pressure from Vettel’s Red Bull, but a gearbox failure for Schumacher ended what was becoming an entertaining battle. Schumacher’s team-mate Nico Rosberg had a flying start to be fourth on the opening lap, but then struggled with to keep pace with the leaders, running eighth towards the end of the race before a problem on the final lap dropped him down to twelfth.
The Red Bull pair of Vettel and Webber were much stronger in the race than their qualifying pace had suggested. Vettel had a good start to beat Webber off the line and, after Schumacher retired, spent some time hunting down the McLarens. Button was too quick for the Red Bulls, but Vettel managed to pass Lewis Hamilton in the second round of pit stops, aided by the safety car that came out when Vitaly Petrov’s Caterham stopped on the pit straight.
After Ferrari lacked pace in qualifying, Alonso and Massa were both expected to struggle in the race, but Alonso put in a typically determined performance to finish fifth, behind the McLarens and Red Bulls. Massa was less competitive, fighting out of the points with the Saubers and Toro Rossos. His race ended in a collision with Bruno Senna. Senna had executed quite a neat pass round the outside of turn 4, but Massa gave him no space on the exit of the corner and crashed into the side of the Williams. It meant an early shower for both drivers.
Williams showed good pace, with Pastor Maldonado harrying Fernando Alonso until the final lap of the race, when Maldonado made a small mistake on the exit of turn 6 of the final lap and ended up in the wall. It was an unfortunate end to a strong race for the Williams team, but perhaps necessary experience for Maldonado.
There was disappointment for Romain Grosjean, who had a slow start and then found himself fighting with Maldonado. Contact when Maldonado passed the Lotus broke Grosjean’s right front suspension, which was the end of his race. After a very strong qualifying performance, it was disappointing to see Grosjean out so quickly, but team-mate Kimi Raikkonen showed what the Lotus can do, fighting through the field from 17th on the grid to finish seventh.
Mclaren will go away from Australia with confidence after a clinical and commanding performance. Red Bull look like they may be able to challenge the McLarens, but there is a gap back to Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus. Williams may be in there somewhere as well. The front of the grid has certainly tightened up compared to last year. It looks like the season will be very close.
Formula One now heads to Malaysia for the second race next week.
Jenson Button was very much a late bloomer in Formula 1. He arrived at Williams in 2000 only 20 years old, but took quite a long time to mature as an F1 driver. It took 6 years for his first win, and the first time he really looked like a championship contender was when he won the title in 2009. And in that year, his dominance was (on the surface, at least) all about the Brawn car.
Button moved to McLaren following his successful 2009 season, a move that was generally considered ill-advised. McLaren was Lewis Hamilton’s team. Even without the perception that the team was built around Hamilton, Lewis was (and remains) an enormous talent. It was a bold move on Button’s part to line up alongside such a team-mate. Fernando Alonso had struggled alongside Hamilton in 2007, and Alonso is one of the greatest drivers of the last 2 decades, if not ever.
In 2010, Button finished 5th in the standings, just behind Hamilton. They each took 2 victories, and had a few on-track battles. Button had finished behind Hamilton, but had by no means been out-shone.
2011 saw a more mature, more determined, more in control Jenson Button. He has obviously settled in well at McLaren, and is now well-focused on winning races. He has shown speed during 2011 that few suspected he had in him. His victory in Canada was thrilling. He drove through the field from last place, in changing weather conditions, and pressured Sebastian Vettel into making a mistake. It was arguably Button’s finest win, and will probably remain so.
2 further wins – in Hungary and Japan – and another 9 podiums saw Button finish the season second to Vettel, ahead of Mark Webber in the other Red Bull. It is extremely significant that Button beat Webber in the championship. The Red Bull has been universally acknowledged as the quicker car (although the McLaren certainly was not slow this year), and Webber is regarded as a quality driver. For Button to finish ahead of Webber in the standings shows that his driving has been quick and consistent for the entire season.
Until 2009, Button was unlikely to be mentioned among names like Hamilton and Alonso when talking about potential champions. After his performance in 2011, Button must now be one of the favourites for 2012. Much depends on the car, as ever in Formula 1, but Button has certainly done his part with distinction in 2011, and it seems likely that he will carry that form into 2012.
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