Button shines to beat ifs, buts and all-comers
Monday 07 August 2006
It was a goulash of a race that Fernando Alonso should have, and Pedro de la Rosa might have won, but the Hungarian Grand Prix yesterday finally delivered to Jenson Button the victory for which he had waited so long. And he deserved every moment of his success.
The race had an explosive script in which a damp surface at the start, a little more rain, and then a steadily drying line which demanded clever strategies and timing of the switch from wet tyres to dry ones, all combined to create a veritable humdinger of a race.
To begin with, Raikkonen stamped his authority for McLaren-Mercedes, chased by Honda's Rubens Barrichello and his own team-mate, Pedro de la Rosa. Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Button (after their penalties in practice for brake testing Robert Doornbos and overtaking under a yellow flag; ignoring a red flag; and an engine failure respectively), were all scything their way up the field. It soon became clear, however, that the intermediate Michelin tyres were the answer in the conditions, and that the full-wet Bridgestones on Schumacher's Ferrari were not.
The McLarens of De la Rosa and Raikkonen pitted on laps 16 and 17, but Alonso's Renault kept going until lap 27, by which time he had built a lead of 39.1sec. But, a lap earlier, Raikkonen had crashed heavily into the back of Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso as the Italian was being lapped.
According to McLaren, Raikkonen said: "I could do nothing to avoid the collision with Liuzzi. He really slowed down on the racing line and there was just nowhere to go."
That was not true. Raikkonen and Liuzzi are close friends, and the Finn admitted to the Italian, who was trying to keep out of the way, that he was looking in his mirrors at the time, thinking of letting the faster De la Rosa through. When he looked back ahead he went straight into, and over, Liuzzi's machine.
Both cars were eliminated, without driver injury, and as the safety car came out for five laps, Alonso's lead was eradicated. He set about rebuilding it, but then came under pressure, Button and the Spaniard trading fastest laps as the gap between them fluctuated between four and five seconds until Button refuelled again on the 46th lap.
Alonso went five laps further and seemed to have the race in the bag, but after one hiccup on the 34th lap when he accidentally hit neutral, his stop on lap 51 was the prelude to disaster. As he rejoined, a driveshaft problem pitched his Renault into the barriers and out of the race.
"These things happen in motor racing," he said philosophically. "But what an incredible race. The first part was fantastic, and the car felt really good in the wet conditions, even with a much bigger fuel load than our rivals. After the safety car, we avoided taking too many risks and with the dry tyres I think it would have been a comfortable win for us today. But as I came out of the pits, something broke at the rear."
As Button inherited the lead, Alonso's worst nightmare started to unfold as Schumacher had been flying on a drying track, retaining his full-wet tyres in his pit stops and exploiting their high wear rate as if he was running on the old type of slick tyre. By lap 60 he was defending second place behind Button from a closing De la Rosa and BMW-Sauber's Nick Heidfeld.
By then, however, his tyres were finished. He and De la Rosa ran side by side past the pits for four laps before the Spaniard finally squeezed through, but not without incident.
Heidfeld followed suit a lap later, and Schumacher then ran into the back of the Sauber. That damaged the Ferrari's steering, however, and close to the end Schumacher was forced out.
"He was defending his position a bit too much for his pace, already doing miracles to stay on the track, but I didn't expect him to battle that hard," De la Rosa said as he celebrated the first podium of his revived career. "I just waited and waited, and knew that I just had to be patient.
"The second time around I made it, but he nearly caused me to crash because he jumped over the chicane, backed off, and then when I went into Turn 8 on the inside, thinking he was letting me go past [after gaining an illegal advantage], he suddenly accelerated and we clashed wheels. I didn't understand."
Heidfeld said: "Michael drove into the back of my car, his suspension was damaged and my steering wasn't straight any more, so I took it easy for the last few laps."
Schumacher simply said: "Of course I'm disappointed. We had a great opportunity but we did not take it. But these things happen." Schumacher's luck changed late in the day, however, when Robert Kubica was disqualified from seventh place as his BMW-Sauber was found to be underweight. This boosted Schumacher to eighth, securing a valuable point and cutting Alonso's championship lead down to just 10 points.
The day, however, belonged to Button and Honda. With conditions equalising things, the Englishman could show his true class.
"Today we looked like a race-winning team," he said. "This evening I'll run through it again. I've read a lot of interviews about all the races I've done without winning, but they're not going to happen again. That's a big weight off my shoulders."
Over the Button moon: Jenson in perspective
* Button's 114-race wait for victory was just shorter than team-mate Rubens Barrichello's 124.
* No driver has taken so long to win a race and later become world champion.
* Button's win ends the longest streak without a British winner: 63 races. He is the 18th.
* The last Englishman to win a grand prix was Johnny Herbert at the Nürburgring in 1999.
* Formula One has nine active race winners, not including the absent Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya.
* Damon Hill and Fernando Alonso also won their first grands prix in Hungary, in 1993 and 2003 respectively.
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