Can Button hold on?
For seven races he looked unstoppable. Now the chasing pack are hot on his wheels, and critics say he'll pay a high price for being too cautious. David Tremayne gives Jenson Button a chance to answer back
Saturday 29 August 2009
Nobody has dominated a season quite so dramatically as Jenson Button did, then fallen so spectacularly from grace. The first seven races yielded six wins, a third, and 61 points; then came a sixth, a fifth and two sevenths and a measly 11 more points.
Small wonder, then, that underlying frustration is evident in his tone as, for the umpteenth time, he goes through the explanation of how his Brawn fails to generate sufficient tyre temperature in cooler conditions, ahead of tomorrow's race at Spa in Belgium. He's a good-natured guy, but he's beginning to get a mite tired of having to justify the problems to people who lambasted him when things were going so badly at Honda, then praised him to the skies when he started his winning streak.
"The car hasn't changed," he said after a poor seventh in Hungary. "The only thing that has changed is the weather from Friday to Sunday. We keep complaining and saying it is the weather's fault, and it basically is. We have built a car that looks after its tyres when it is the right temperature range, but as soon as it drops out of that we've got a problem."
Even a change of 10C has been sufficient to change the Brawn into a car no longer capable of holding off the Red Bulls of title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton's increasingly competitive McLaren, the Ferrari, or Nico Rosberg's Williams. The poor results have inevitably triggered suggestions that Button has been too cautious and squandered what was once a huge points advantage.
"I don't have a conservative approach, that's the thing," he insists. "If you look at the last four races, in the first three our car was not as competitive as we would have hoped. The last one [Valencia] wasn't a good weekend for me, initially because I didn't qualify well. If you look at the race, if I'd stayed on the inside of Vettel I would have broken my front wing and wiped him out as well."
Ah, lack of aggression, the critics said. "It's not a conservative approach, it's about not being stupid," Button counters. "Commonsense says you lift if someone is about to clip your front wing. You don't get any points if you have to make a pit-stop." All drivers rationalise bad things in their own way, for self-belief is a crucial cornerstone of success.
Barrichello kept his motivation alive with some odd self-justification, but judging by his performance in Valencia, it did the trick. Button, however, is not the sort to delude himself, and is genuinely non-plussed by suggestions that he lacks aggression, or even that he doesn't really want the title.
"I don't think people are saying that seriously. Who would possibly say that?" he asks, incredulous. "In reality, that is not the question – it can't be. 'Does he want the title?' It's a pretty silly question isn't it? Why am I here then? Do I want to win the title? No, I want to finish second or third... When you have one bad race there are always silly questions. This is not the part of the job you want to think about too much. I want to focus on the driving."
It's a pretty standard response from a driver who is undoubtedly feeling the pressure despite outward appearances, but no less valid for that. Button is much more concerned with the nuances of oversteer and understeer, high-speed downforce, and, yes, tyre temperature, than how people perceive him.
Right now, he needs to understand why his team-mate can get more out of the same package than he can, just as Barrichello had to ponder that earlier in the season. He concedes that their styles differ, that the Brazilian's is perhaps coarser, and therefore less kind to the Bridgestone tyres. "Rubens works the tyres a bit harder," he says. "He was getting five to 10 degrees more temperature into them at Silverstone. But there are a lot of high G corners here and lots of hard braking, which generates temperature, so that shouldn't be such a problem here at Spa."
It's deeply ironic that the gentle touch, so long acknowledged as the quickest way, isn't always the answer these days.
Race for the title: Four-way fight
6 wins, 72 points
Earlier this year Button looked untouchable. He won the two first races, had a brief dip in China (literally) when his Brawn was less suited to the wet than the Red Bulls, then bounced back to win the next four races. Since then ... well, the wheels have come off as the Brawn has struggled to generate decent tyre temperatures in cooler conditions. His challenge depends entirely on how effectively the team fix that problem. When the car works, Button can do the job.
2 wins, 47 points
Vettel is a clear champion of the future, with the right blend of speed, car control and aggression, and the determination to bend a team to his will. He drove beautifully in China and Silverstone, to score the second and third victories of his burgeoning career. However, he has run into trouble. Team-mate Mark Webber beat him fair and square in Germany, then he retired in Hungary and Valencia. And two engine failures in Spain leave him with only two of his permitted eight motors for the next six meetings. Spa, Monza and Suzuka are notably hard on engines... Of the four contenders, his chances look the most precarious.
1 win, 54 points
As Button went on his winning spree, the Brazilian had a difficult time, often faster in certain practices but unable to translate that into the big result. By Valencia he seemed to be out of contention, but a great victory there thrust him into the fight. He seems better able to unlock the Brawn's potential right now, and is still hungry. Don't write him off just yet.
1 win, 51.5 points
Webber is a tough guy. He proved that physically by coming back seemingly unaffected from the leg-breaking accident on the Mark Webber Challenge in Tasmania last November. He's always believed in himself, and that belief was totally vindicated when he scored his first victory, in Germany. Webber is nonetheless the dark horse.
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