McLaren tyre trouble driving Jenson Button mad
While Lewis Hamilton and the McLaren team celebrated a tremendous victory at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Sunday night, his team-mate Jenson Button was left in despair after another soul-destroying afternoon struggling to make a winning car work for him.
While Hamilton dominated the race as title rivals Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel lost their bold gambles to try to make it through with only one tyre stop, Button finished a lapped 16th, repeating his recent performance in Monte Carlo.
Last year, it was Hamilton who was under the microscope, but though Button dominated this season's opening race in Australia, he now finds himself the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation over his ability to "switch on" Pirelli's latest tyres.
"He's been here before, back in 2009 when he won the championship," friends say, referring to the trouble he had back then making a silky smooth driving style heat up Bridgestone tyres that responded better to the coarser style of his then team-mate at Brawn, Rubens Barrichello. But the Pirellis' window of operation is so narrow, limited to a few degrees. If you fail to get them hot enough, or if you overheat them, they never drop back down to the right temperature – either way the result is a car that slides around.
"We know these tyres have such a fine peak window and if you fall out of that, you are history," McLaren chief Martin Whitmarsh said. "Start getting them too hot, and the grip is gone and then it gets away from you."
As Hamilton made history by becoming the seventh different winner in a season's first seven races, and moved into a narrow championship lead, Button finds himself languishing in eighth place, 43 points adrift. But worse than that, he is struggling to come up with ideas for how to reverse the downturn in fortune that began in Bahrain. Since finishing second in China, his best score has been a lowly ninth in Spain.
McLaren are taking a patient view of their man's problems. Whitmarsh said: "It's not a long-term concern, it's a frustration and a disappointment. Lewis was clearly able to turn the tyres on very quickly. He was driving with confidence and he was able to attack with the front tyres and get them fired up very quickly, so I don't think that was such a significant factor as some of us thought it would be before the race.
"Jenson is a great racing driver and we served him badly this weekend. His rear tyres were completely shot. We didn't give him a race car he could perform in. But we know how smart and strong-minded he is. So he will keep his head up, and he could still be the first driver to repeat a win this season. He has a smart head on his shoulders and he's capable of coming back."
There is hope if Button looks at Felipe Massa's example. The Brazilian was in the same boat for a long time at Ferrari this year, triggering speculation that he might be replaced by Sauber's Sergio Perez, but painstaking work with his engineers has finally turned his season around since Monaco.
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