Monday, 26 November 2012

Smooth Button masters F1's greatest test

At the circuit widely regarded as the greatest test of a racing driver in the world, Jenson Button took a victory in the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday that was probably the most dominant this season.

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, who finished second to Button after an impressive performance of his own, had an even bigger margin of superiority in Valencia but he was unable to make it count because his car failed.

Button had no such trouble. He stamped his authority on the weekend from the start of qualifying and never looked back, as all hell broke loose behind his McLaren.

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The frightening first-corner pile-up helped him in that it took out a potential threat in world championship leader Fernando Alonso's Ferrari. The Spaniard was up to third place from fifth on the grid before being assaulted by the flying Lotus of Romain Grosjean, who had collided with the other McLaren of Lewis Hamilton.

But before the race Alonso had entertained no prospect of battling for victory, and while he would almost certainly have finished on the podium, there is no reason to believe he would have troubled Button.

The Englishman also comfortably saw off in the opening laps the challenge of Lotus's Kimi Raikkonen, hotly tipped before the weekend.

Raikkonen was left to battle entertainingly with rivals including Vettel and Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher, on whom the Finn pulled an astoundingly brave pass into the 180mph swerves of Eau Rouge which was almost a carbon copy of Red Bull driver Mark Webber's move on Alonso last year.

Button, meanwhile, was serene out front, never looking under the remotest threat.

For Button, this was a far cry from the struggles he has encountered in what has not overall been one of his better seasons.

A strong start included a dominant victory in the opening race in Australia and second place in China.

But after that he tailed off badly, struggling with this year's big Formula 1 quandary - getting the temperamental Pirelli tyres into the right operating window.

The 32-year-old had a sequence of weak races and even at other times has generally been firmly in Hamilton's shade.

Those struggles were ultimately solved by some head-scratching on set-up at McLaren, but they were undoubtedly influenced by Button's smooth, unflustered driving style.

Button's weakness - one of which he is well aware - is that he struggles when the car is not to his liking. Unlike Alonso and Hamilton, he finds it difficult to adapt his style to different circumstances.

The flip side of that is that when he gets the car's balance right, he is close to unbeatable. It is a similar situation to that of two former McLaren drivers - Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.

Senna, like Hamilton, was usually faster, but when Prost, whose style was similar to Button's, got his car in the sweet spot he was matchless.

"I obviously have a style where it's quite difficult to find a car that works for me in qualifying," Button said on Saturday, "but when it does we can get pole position."

Perhaps an elegant style that does not upset the car or over-work the tyres was exactly what was needed through the demanding corners of Spa's challenging middle sector.

That was McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe's view, certainly.

"It could well be," Lowe said, "because it's made up of these longer flowing corners rather than the short, stop-start ones. So that may well be something he can work with well, just tucking it all up and smooth lines."

Was this the secret to Button's performance in qualifying, when he was a remarkable 0.8 seconds quicker than team-mate Lewis Hamilton?

In a well-publicised series of tweets after qualifying, Hamilton blamed this on the team's collective decision - with which he agreed when it was made - to run his car on a set-up with higher downforce.

This is a perfectly valid decision at Spa -it was a route that Raikkonen also took - and in pure lap time the two differing approaches should balance themselves out. But for them to do so, the driver with the higher downforce set-up has to make up in the middle sector the time he has lost on the straights.

As the McLaren telemetry of which Hamilton so unwisely tweeted a picture on race morning proved, however, that was not the case. Hamilton was not fast enough through sector two - indeed his time through there on his final qualifying lap was 0.3secs slower than his best in the session.

The McLaren telemetry

Hamilton tweeted a photo of the McLaren telemetry, prompting a rebuke from his team.

That was the real reason why he was slower than Button in Spa qualifying - not the fact he was down on straight-line speed, which was always going to be the case once he went with the set-up he did.

It's worth pointing out in this context that Hamilton was also significantly slower than Button in final practice - a fact that led him to take the gamble on the different set-up.

How Hamilton would have fared in the race will never be known, because of the accident with Grosjean.

It was a scary moment - Grosjean's flying Lotus narrowly missed Alonso's head - and the incident underlined once again why F1 bosses are so keen to introduce some kind of more effective driver head protection in the future.

From the point of view of a disinterested observer, the only plus point of the accident, which also took out the two impressive Saubers, was that it has narrowed Alonso's lead in the championship. Vettel is now within a race victory of the Spaniard.

Despite this, to his immense credit, Alonso was a picture of measured calm after the race.

Invited to criticise Grosjean, he refused. Although, being the wise owl he is, he not only had at his fingertips the statistics of Grosjean's first-lap crashes this season, but slipped them into his answer.

"I am not angry [at Grosjean]," he said. "No-one did this on purpose, they were fighting, two aggressive drivers on the start, Lewis and Romain and this time it was us in the wrong place at the wrong time and we were hit.

"It's true also that in 12 races, Romain had seven crashes at the start, so..."

It was, Alonso pointed out, a good opportunity for governing body the FIA to make a point about driving standards this season, which Williams's Pastor Maldonado has also seemed to be waging a campaign to lower.

It was an opportunity the stewards did not decline.

Grosjean will now watch next weekend's Italian Grand Prix from the sidelines after being given a one-race suspension, the first time a driver has been banned since Michael Schumacher in 1994. Maldonado has a 10-place grid penalty for jumping the start and causing his own, independent, accident.

Earlier this year, triple world champion Jackie Stewart, who is an advisor to Lotus, offered to sit down with Grosjean and give him some advice about the way he approached his races.

Stewart is famous not only for his campaign for safety in F1 but also for his impeccable driving standards during his career. He has helped many drivers in his time, but Grosjean turned him down.

On Sunday evening, I was contacted by an old friend, the two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and former IndyCar champion Gil de Ferran, who was involved in F1 a few years ago as a senior figure in the Honda team.

That coaching, De Ferran said, "seems like a great idea".


Bob Christie Johnny Claes David Clapham Jim Clark† Kevin Cogan Peter Collins

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