Jenson Button won a nailbiting Chinese Grand Prix for McLaren here, but with team-mate Lewis Hamilton chasing him home on a wet track after a race of many parts, he admitted that there were moments when he had had his heart in his mouth.
It began with light rain, a jump start by Fernando Alonso's Ferrari and an incident in the first corner when Tonio Liuzzi spun his Force India into Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber and Sébastien Buemi's Toro Rosso, bringing out the safety car.
Alonso, pursued by the menacing Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel immediately pitted to switch from Bridgestone's slicks to intermediate rain tyres, leaving Nico Rosberg in the lead for Mercedes from Button. When the racing resumed on the sixth lap these two continued to lead, chased by Robert Kubica, all on slicks. Further back, Hamilton took a very late decision to switch to intermediates, and the difference in the speed of communication between the two drivers' pit crews proved crucial.
"We discussed on the radio while I was going down the back straight what tyres to use," Button said. "They said pit now if it's too wet for slicks. But it was surprising how much grip they had, given that it was raining hard, so I decided stay out. Later the boys made the call for me to go on to intermediates, and that was also definitely the right call. So it was one-all between us. Today wasn't just about being quick, but making the right calls in the right conditions, that's what won us the race."
As Button celebrated taking the lead of the world championship for the first time this year, Hamilton explained how his first pit-stop call had been less straightforward.
"I was also speaking to my guys on the radio down the back straight but they weren't clear whether we should come in or not, we weren't fast enough in our communication. Halfway round the last corner I thought I heard the call to pit so I turned right and came in, but it wasn't the right call."
That was proved when, three laps later, it was time for slicks again. This time as they headed for the pits, Vettel and Hamilton had an incident where the Englishman passed the German on the entry; as they left their respective pits both got sideways, and Vettel appeared to move over on Hamilton, pushing him towards other team's pits.
The stewards debated the matter later, and reprimanded the German for dangerous driving. Hamilton also incurred their wrath.
"As far as I'm concerned it was OK," Hamilton said. "Vettel got inside me on the exit to the last corner but I went straight into the pits and it was fine. The team waited some time and released me when they thought it was right, but there's a long blue line all painted and therefore very slippery, so I had some major wheelspin and lost traction, and he was pushing me a little bit to the right until we touched wheels, but it was OK."
Back out on the track, Hamilton then dished out a driving lesson to Vettel, passing him with ease as he outfoxed both Red Bulls in one move on lap 12.
At that stage Rosberg had a 2.9 seconds lead over Button, who was biding his time. The reigning champion made a mistake on the 18th lap that saw Rosberg increase his lead to 4.5sec, but a lap later it was the German's turn to err, as he slid off in the final corner and handed the lead to Button. Rosberg's error had been caused by heavier rain, and that triggered yet more wholesale pit-stops on the 20th lap as Button, Rosberg, Kubica, the Pole's impressive team-mate Vitaly Petrov, Hamilton and Vettel all piled in for intermediate tyres, joining Michael Schumacher, Webber, Jaime Alguersuari, Adrian Sutil, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso who had all stopped the previous lap. But just as it seemed things might settle down there came another dramatic twist as the safety car was deployed again on the 21st lap. Alguersuari had gone off in his Toro Rosso, damaging the nose wing and leaving debris on the racing line. In a flash Button's lead was wiped out, as was Hamilton's 40sec deficit to the leaders.
The safety car pulled in on the 25th lap, but there was a huge traffic jam at the end of the back straight as Button backed up the field so much that Hamilton actually had to pull off on to the grass to avoid hitting Webber right in front of him. The Australian then got hung out to dry on the exit to the final corner after going very wide – even saying "Hamilton smashed me off the road – so that he had dropped from sixth to 11th place by the time he crossed the line.
As half-distance approached, Button led Rosberg by a second, with Hamilton fast closing on his old sparring partner Kubica for third. The tough Pole had resisted him in Melbourne, but here the McLaren's straight-line pace sealed the issue in Hamilton's favour on the 29th lap, and soon the 2008 world champion was giving Rosberg a hard time. Now he was himself only 4.7sec adrift of Button and scented victory. On lap 34 he pulled the same move on the German that had earlier embarrassed Schumacher, but to everyone's surprise Rosberg fought back and repassed the McLaren. That was the moment in which Hamilton lost his chance of victory, as Button's lead over him stretched from 4.6sec to 6.2sec within a lap.
Hamilton switched to a fresh set of intermediate tyres on lap 37, before Button, Rosberg and Alonso did likewise a lap later. In the stops Hamilton had overtaken Rosberg, but later he felt he should have hung on a couple of more laps. Now it was mano a mano between the McLaren drivers. To begin with Button pulled away, opening his lead to as much as 9.9sec, but as his tyres lost their edge Hamilton moved in again, and a major mistake by Button at the hairpin on lap 51 left him tiptoeing home to the flag just 1.5sec ahead.
"It was pretty damn good I must say, apart from the last four laps which were pretty scary," Button said. "I was skating all over the place, and went straight on at the hairpin and made it difficult for myself as I could not generate tyre temperature. For me this was my best victory, something very special."
Chinese Grand Prix: Result and standings
FIA Formula One Chinese Grand Prix, Shangai: 1 J Button (GB) McLaren 1 hour 46 min 42.163sec; 2 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:46:43.693; 3 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:46:51.647; 4 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:46:54.032; 5 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:47:04.376; 6 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:47:15.473; 7 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:47:29.763; 8 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 01:47:34.335; 9 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:47:39.959; 10 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:47:43.912; 11 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:47:45.037; 12 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:47:45.828; 13 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:47:53.579; 14 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 1 lap; 15 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams at 1 lap; 16 B Senna (Br) HRT-F1 at 2 laps; 17 K Chandhok (India) HRT-F1 at 4 laps. Not classified: 18 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1; 19 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing; 20 P de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber; 21 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso; 22 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber; 23 V Liuzzi (It) Force India; 24 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing.
World Championship standings after Chinese Grand Prix: Drivers: 1 Button 60pts; 2 Rosberg (Ger) 50; 3 Alonso 49; 4 Hamilton 49; 5 Vettel 45; 6 Massa 41; 7 Kubica 40; 8 Webber 28.0; 9 Sutil 10.0; 10 Schumacher 10; 11 Liuzzi 8; 12 Petrov 6; 13 R Barrichello 5; 14 Alguersuari 2; 15 Hulkenberg 1. Manufacturers: 1 McLaren 109pts; 2 Ferrari 90; 3 Red Bull 73; 4 Mercedes GP 60; 5 Renault 46; 6 Force India 18; 7 Williams 6; 8 Scuderia Toro Rosso 2; 9 BMW Sauber 0; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 HRT-F1 0; 12 Virgin Racing 0.Reuse content