When Jenson Button drove down the pit lane on the sixth lap of the Australian Grand Prix and saw that it was still soaking wet, he had the sinking feeling that he had made a major error of judgement. A shower just before the start had obliged everyone to start on Bridgestone's intermediate tyres, and now he was suddenly second guessing his gamble to come in and change to dry weather slicks.
"It was my decision," he reported after scoring his first win for his new McLaren team at only the second attempt. "I think it is a lot easier for the drivers to feel the conditions. The team can see it on TV with the clouds coming in, but we can feel out on the circuit what is happening." It was the ploy that would win him one of the most gripping races in years, which gave the lie to the suggestion that Formula One is boring after a dull season opener in Bahrain a fortnight earlier.
"I was really struggling and I lost a couple of places," he continued, "so I thought, 'Let's get in, stick the slicks on'. There was a dry line. A few places were a little bit wet. But when I went into the pit lane I thought I had made a catastrophic decision. Once I got it going and up to speed I had a little off at Turn Three, and again I thought I had made a huge mistake, but then the pace was pretty good and I was able to put in some good laps and overtake three or four cars after they stopped and put their slick tyres on.
"I had already found out where the grip was, whereas they were still searching for it, so I was able to pass them quite easily. So, ultimately, it was the right call and I am very happy that I made it."
Button's race had already got off to a dramatic start when he pushed points leader Fernando Alonso into a spin when the Spaniard pinched him going into the first corner. As the Ferrari spun, it made contact with Michael Schumacher's Mercedes, and Button's team-mate Lewis Hamilton was also delayed.
"I'm sorry Fernando got turned around," Button said, "but I got delayed too. The thing is, you can't suddenly brake in that situation because it would be dangerous, because of all the cars behind you."
When things had settled down after a spate of mass tyre stops on the eighth lap, Sebastian Vettel appeared to have another race wrapped up for Red Bull, with Button second and Robert Kubica third from Nico Rosberg. Hamilton, meanwhile, was fighting in seventh place as he pounded after Felipe Massa and Vettel's team-mate, Mark Webber. The race became Button's when Vettel suddenly speared into a gravel trap on the 20th lap, losing a race for the second time in a fortnight.
"I felt that something went wrong one lap earlier than I went off," Vettel said. "I had some sparks coming up from the front left wheel. A couple of corners before I went off I had huge vibrations building up and as soon as I touched the brakes I had some sort of failure." Red Bull suspected the wheel attachment mechanism.
While Button consolidated his lead, Kubica came under heavy fire after Hamilton had clawed his way to third place with a series of great passing moves, but a second tyre stop on lap 34 destroyed the Englishman's chances of victory.
Like Button, Kubica, the Ferrari drivers Massa and Alonso nursed a single set of slick tyres each, leaving Hamilton to recover from his stop hounded by Webber, who had dropped back after some mistakes. In the closing stages the six of them fought over second place, until Webber ran into the back of Hamilton as the McLaren driver had to back off when a passing move of his own was frustrated by Alonso. Hamilton and Webber recovered and went on to sixth- and ninth-place finishes, and neither Massa or Alonso were in any state to challenge Kubica as their tyres were finished.
"It was disappointing to be taken out by Mark, but I hear he apologised for it so I appreciate that," Hamilton said. "I drove my heart out today."
Australian Grand Prix: Results and standings
FIA Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne (58 laps):
1 J Button (GB) McLaren 1hr 33min 36.531sec;
2 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:33:48.565;
3 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:33:51.019;
4 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:33:52.835;
5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:33:53.214;
6 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:34:06.520;
7 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:34:36.378;
8 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:34:37.067;
9 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull Racing 1:34:43.850;
10 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:34:45.922; 11 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:34:47.832; 12 P de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber 1:34:50.615; 13 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 2 laps; 14 K Chandhok (India) Hispania Racing Team F1 at 5 laps.
Not Classified: 15 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing 41 laps completed; 16 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing 26 laps; 17 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull Racing 25 laps; 18 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 9 laps; 19 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 9 laps; 20 B Senna (Br) Hispania Racing Team F1 4 laps; 21 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 0 laps; 22 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 0 laps; 23 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 0 laps; 24 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 0 laps. World championship standings: Drivers 1 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 37pts; 2 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 33; 3 J Button (GB) McLaren 31; 4 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 23; 5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 20; 6 Robert Kubica (Pol) Renault 18; 7 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 12; 8 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 9; 9 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 8; 10 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 6; 11 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 5.
Constructors 1 Ferrari 70pts; 2 McLaren 54; 3 Mercedes GP 29; 4 Renault 18; 5 Red Bull 18; 6 Force India 8; 7 Williams 5.
Next race: Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang, Kuala Lumpur, 2-4 April.