Jenson Button always said that tyre management would be a key part of the Malaysian Grand Prix and he was right – but even he could not have foreseen the mayhem which forced yesterday's race to be stopped after 32 of the scheduled 56 laps. As the Briton extended his world championship lead with another victory for Brawn Mercedes, it was the management of tyre changes that proved crucial as torrential rain made the Sepang circuit slippier than a skating rink.
"You know, I still haven't seen the chequered flag without the safety car in front!" Button joked. But again he looked calm yet elated. "I'm happy they didn't start it again," he admitted, "as that would have meant 10 laps behind the safety car. We were going at running pace and you'd have been scared you'd chuck it off. You couldn't see. The water wasn't in rivers, it was a lake."
Rain was always a possibility as the start was put back to five o'clock local time (10am BST) to enhance television viewing figures, and Button was leading when it duly arrived on the 22nd lap. He had already made his scheduled tyre stop on the 19th, and now had to switch from soft compound Bridgestone drys to wet weather rubber.
He resumed still in the lead and continued that way until it became clear just how fast Toyota's Timo Glock was going on intermediate rain tyres after his own stop on lap 22. Button swept back in on lap 29 for inters, and grabbed the lead back from Glock as the German dived in at the end of lap 30 for...extreme wets!
The conditions had changed again, so in came Button for a third time on lap 31 to go back to the deeply grooved rubber. He resumed in the lead again as Glock battled with Nick Heidfeld for second place, and that was when race director Charlie Whiting decided that it was time to deploy the safety car. A lap later, out went the red flag. Confusion reigned. Up to that point, the Malaysian Grand Prix had once again showcased the closeness of the 2009 cars, with some great battles as Nico Rosberg took the lead at the start and Button, on the dirty side of the track, was passed by Toyota's Jarno Trulli, and Renault's Fernando Alonso. Button snatched third place back before the lap was over, as further back team-mate Barrichello had sprinted up to fifth ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, Mark Webber, Glock, Heidfeld and Lewis Hamilton.
Rosberg in the Williams pulled away from Trulli, who had his hands full with Button, but after the German pitted on the 15th lap and the Italian two later, Button got moving and was able to concede the lead to team-mate Barrichello before taking it back when the Brazilian pitted a lap later.
The biggest gamble of the day came from Ferrari. When Raikkonen pitted on the 18th lap they put him on extreme wets in anticipation of the oncoming deluge, but they were simply too early and it proved a disastrous decision. Just before the rain, the order was Button, six seconds ahead of Rosberg, Trulli and Barrichello.
Then came the rash of unscheduled pit calls on the 22nd lap as the rain came, followed by thunder, lightning and all the drama that had been predicted. By lap 25 things had stabilised as the drivers splashed their way around, and parts of the track became less wet than others. Button was still leading, from Rosberg, Trulli and Barrichello, but Webber was now fifth from Heidfeld after Alonso had fallen off, then came Hamilton, Glock and Felipe Massa. Glock had taken the bold decision to use intermediate tyres, however, and was flying. Button, and others, were beginning to find their extreme wet tyre choice was no longer valid.
"What a crazy race!" Button grinned. "That one really had everything! My start was very bad, I went down to fourth, then up to third, fighting some oversteer, then eventually I got up to the front. I was happy with that, and then it started to rain. Normally when it rains here it pours but this time it didn't. We had been expecting it to start chucking down but my extreme wet tyres soon destroyed themselves. We saw that Timo was on intermediates, and he was charging, so I dived in for some on lap 29 and came out close behind him. As I went by him I saw that his tyres were bald and he had to pit. I got one lap on the inters and had reasonable pace, but then I came in for wets again because finally it really had started raining."
The safety car was deployed on the 31st lap, and the red flag came out a lap later. Then the guessing began. Would the race be restarted, as the rain finally began to ease? If not, would they take the result from a lap before the red flag? The decision-making dragged on, but at 18.52 the race directors finally called it off. Button had won, and as the result was taken from lap 31, Heidfeld got second ahead of Glock, with Trulli, Barrichello, Webber, Hamilton and Rosberg completing the points scorers.
Since the race had gone past the 50 per cent mark but not 75 per cent, half points were awarded for only the fifth time in history. But for Button, it was the chance to extend his championship lead from 10 points to 15, with Barrichello next in the rankings on 10 ahead of Trulli on 8.5.
Malaysian GP: Sepang details
1 J Button (GB) Brawn GP 1hr 10min 59.092sec
2 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:11:21.814
3 T Glock (Ger) Toyota 1:11:22.605
4 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:11:45.265
5 R Barrichello (Br) Brawn GP 1:11:46.452
6 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:11:51.392
7 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:11:59.825
8 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams 1:12:10.668
9 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:12:16.024
10 S Bourdais (Fr) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:12:41.256; 11 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:12:48.514; 12 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams 1:12:55.222; 13 N Piquet Jnr.= (Br) Renault 1:12:55.805; 14 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:13:21.933; 15 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull at 1 lap; 16 S Buemi (Swi) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 lap; 17 A Sutil (Ger) Force India at 1 lap; 18 G Fisichella (Ita) Force India at 2 laps. Not classified: 19 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1 lap completed; 20 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren 0 laps.
1 Button 15pts; 2 Barrichello 10; 3 Trulli 8.5; 4 Glock 8; 5 Alonso 4; 6 Heidfeld 4; 7 Rosberg (Ger) 3.5; 8 Buemi 2; 9 Webber 1.5; 10 Bourdais 1; 11 Hamilton 1.
Manufacturers: 1 Brawn GP 25pts; 2 Toyota 16.5; 3 Renault 4; 4 BMW Sauber 4; 5 Williams 3.5; 6 Scuderia Toro Rosso 3; 7 Red Bull 1.5; 8 McLaren 1; 9 Force India 0; 10 Ferrari 0.
19 April Chinese, Shanghai; 26 April Bahrain, Sakhir; 10 May Spanish, Barcelona; 24 May Monaco, Monte Carlo; 7 June Turkish, Istanbul; 21 June British, Silverstone; 12 July German, Nürburgring; 26 July Hungarian, Budapest; 23 August European, Valencia; 30 August Belgian, Spa; 13 September Italian, Monza; 27 September Singapore, Singapore; 4 October Japanese, Suzuka; 18 October Brazilian, Sao Paolo; 1 November Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi.