Jenson Button appeared to have no problem yesterday running away with his fourth victory in the F1 season's five races, despite all the expectation that the Spanish GP in Barcelona might give rivals their chance to catch up.
In the end, he crossed the finish line 13 seconds ahead of his Brawn-Mercedes team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who was challenged in the closing stages by Red Bull's Mark Webber, and the only fly in the ointment was the Brazilian's evident unhappiness that a switch from a three- to a two-stop strategy had helped Button to beat him to the triumph.
For the 29-year-old Englishman, it was another opportunity to demonstrate how pluperfect his driving can be in the right machinery. Much had been made after qualifying of the improvement in Ferrari's hitherto unloved machine, and the threat of the Red Bulls of Webber and Chinese GP winner Sebastian Vettel. But in the end, Button's biggest challenger was his team-mate.
The championship leader made a good start, and was relieved to see in his mirrors that Vettel had been beaten away by dangerman Felipe Massa, who had an extra 80bhp to play with thanks to the Ferrari's KERS system.
"I was hoping to get a big enough gap to Massa, who was stopping a few laps later than me," Button said. "I knew I was screwed if he got ahead."
But he was focused on the wrong Brazilian. The last eight pole position winners had gone on to win the race, and he admitted that he was pondering that statistic wryly as he came out of turn one looking at Barrichello's exhausts.
"Mine wasn't a great start, but this guy," he gestured at Barrichello, "just got a fantastic one. I stayed to the inside to try to hold the line but with that much of an overlap between us there was nothing to do about it. I knew then that it would be very difficult to beat him."
Immediately behind them, all hell broke loose as Nico Rosberg inadvertently eased slow-starting Jarno Trulli off in the second, left-handed corner, and as the Italian's Toyota spun out of the gravel bed and back on to the track it collected Adrian Sutil's Force India. The two Toro Rossos collided in the mêlée, resulting in retirement for all four and a five-lap safety car period.
"I saw nothing of the crash but there was debris all over the circuit the next lap," Button said. "A massive amount of debris, carbon fibre all over the road."
When the race resumed, it appeared to be Barrichello's to lose. By the time Button refuelled on lap 18, Barrichello had a 1.3secs lead. But the team had decided to switch Button from a three-stop strategy to two, informing him just a lap earlier. Now, as he had to cope with a car heavily fuelled to go to lap 48, Barrichello was able to sprint away after his own call on lap 23. The change, however, favoured Button as he pushed as hard as he dared.
"It was a very late call," Button said. "And initially I didn't think it was a great idea. At that stage, I wasn't sure who I was actually racing. Rubens was way in front, Massa and Vettel were behind. The car was very, very heavy and was moving around quite a bit at the back and it took me a while to find my feet. My engineer was on the radio all the time, telling me I had to get the laps in, so every lap was flat out. I've never driven in that style before. I got every 10th out of that car that I could today, but it was pretty messy."
Messy, but effective. After the next round of pit stops, he was able to stay ahead of not just Massa and Vettel, but also Barrichello, who looked aggrieved afterwards not to have had the same chance afforded him.
In the end, the matter was fully settled in Button's favour in the final stint as Barrichello struggled with a car problem and focused instead on holding off the hungry Webber. The Australian took his second podium of the season, 50 years to the day since his great champion compatriot Sir Jack Brabham won his first grand prix.
"He was a legend of our country," Webber said, "so it's great to get a podium today. We had a tough first stint and knew from qualifying it would be hard to get track position on the guys around us. I did my best to hang in as best we could. I had to go to an extremely long second stint to jump [Massa and Vettel] and I got up to Rubens at the end of it. We stopped on the same lap, and then I got stuck behind him again. But it's a good day for the team, with 11 points between Sebastian and I. These guys [at Brawn] are still going away, but we're still going away from the rest behind us."
The result gives Button 41 points to Barrichello's 27, Vettel's 23 and Webber's 15.5. In the constructors' stakes, Brawn have 68 to Red Bull's 38.5. But for perhaps the first time cracks had begun to appear in the hitherto impregnable exterior of the Brawn team as Barrichello could barely wait to get the post-race ceremonies over and start asking hard questions why he was not the one celebrating from the top step of the podium.
Spanish Grand Prix details
1 J Button (GB) Brawn-Mercedes 1hr 37min 19.202sec
2 R Barrichello (Br) Brawn-Mercedes 1:37:32.258
3 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:37:33.126
4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:37:38.143
5 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:38:02.368
6 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:38:10.029
7 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:38:11.514
8 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams 1:38:24.413
9 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes at 1 lap
10 T Glock (Ger) Toyota 1 lap
11 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1 lap;
12 N Piquet (Br) Renault 1 lap;
13 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota 1 lap;
14 G Fisichella (It) Force India-Mercedes 1 lap. Retired: K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari at 49 laps; H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 59; J Trulli (It) Toyota 66; S Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 66; S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 66; A Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes 66.
1 Button 41pt; 2 Barrichello 27; 3 Vettel 23; 4 Webber 15.5; 5 Trulli 14.5; 6 Glock 12; 7 Hamilton 9; 8 Alonso 9; 9 Heidfeld 6; 10 Rosberg 4.5; 11 Kovalainen 4; 12 Massa 3; 13 Raikkonen 3; 14 Buemi 3; 15 Bourdais 1; 16 Sutil 0; = Piquet 0; = Kubica 0; = Fisichella 0; = Nakajima 0.
* Constructors' standings
1 Brawn-Mercedes 68pt; 2 RedBull-Renault 38.5; 3 Toyota 26.5; 4 McLaren-Mercedes 13; 5 Renault 9; 6 Ferrari 6; 7 BMW Sauber 6; 8 Williams-Toyota 4.5; 9 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 4; 10 Force India-Mercedes 0.