F1: Round 7 – Istanbul, Turkey – 7 June

There’s the old conundrum, would you rather be good or would you rather be lucky? The correct answer is both of course, but you rarely get the perfect alignment: except if your name is Jenson Button and you’re racing in Istanbul.

Once again, Jenson put in a flawless drive. He simply didn’t put a wheel wrong throughout. But he was starting from second place, on the dirty side of the track, and it should still have been a tricky race for him to win if his chief rivals had really put up a fight. Instead, they seemed to fall over themselves to make it easy for the championship leader.

After all, this really should have been Sebastian Vettel’s race to win after his superb pole position. And he got off to a great start in the lead and looked in control of the race – for exactly nine turns, until he overcut a corner, went off onto the astroturf and lost handling into turn 10. He slide over onto the dirt on the other side of the track and had to check his speed, which allowed Button to cruise past while Vettel was still recovering.

Vettel was now in the worst case scenario, fuelled light but bottled up behind a heavier car. In fact “bottled up” is inaccurate as Button started to stretch out his lead seemingly without effort. Vettel came in to the pits on lap 15 for fuel while Button stayed out two laps longer; Vettel took on only 6.5s of fuel compared with 9.5s for Button, and yet such was the lead Button had opened up he was still in the lead. Vettel undoubtedly had the faster car, however, and was slashing Button’s lead in every sector until he was right on the back of the Brawn car.

And then it dawned on everyone: not content with making it easy for Button with Vettel’s first lap error, Red Bull now handed it to Brawn on a plate by sticking to a three-stop strategy for Vettel that meant he came back in for a second stop on lap 30, putting him behind his team mate Mark Webber. Webber himself was having a good race – after a start which saw him briefly overtaken by Jarno Trulli which had allowed Button and Vettel to scamper away while he undid the damage, more evidence of the Button good fortune this afternoon; and Vettel would now found himself emphatically behind the Aussie for the rest of the day. After the race, Vettel even publicly expressed disappointment that his team hadn’t reacted quicker and changed strategy in reaction to the situation on track, which he admitted was entirely of his own making.

With both Red Bulls having conceded the battle, the only other real threat to Button’s day was his team mate Rubens Barrichello. Or at least, Rubens should have been a threat. Instead he choked at the start, the car accidentally engaging the anti-stall device leaving him powerless (literally) to prevent a stream of cars getting past him before th first turn. He was down to 13th before he knew what was happening.

And that wasn’t the worst of it. Rubens found himself stuck behind the McLaren of Heikki Kovalainen, battling for position; and the frustration of his circumstances started to well up inside him. Even though he is the oldest and most experienced driver out there, he’s not immune to the red mist of competition. He lunged when he shouldn’t, and inevitably he touched the McLaren’s rear tyre on lap 9 and got spun around, dropping several more positions down the field while recovering. ON lap 13 it was deja vu all over again, this time a lunge on Adrian Sutil for 14th place, and it was even more costly as it damaged the front wing of the Brawn, necessitating an emergency pit stop for a new nose.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough for Rubens, he had lost his top gear – which explained why he was finding it so hard to overtake, when the other cars clearly had superior straight line speed. Eventually the gearbox problem would prove terminal, and on lap 51 – just 8 laps shy of full distance – the Brazilian crawled into the pit garage and parked up. It’s not a day he will remember with any fondness.

And again, that’s a huge boost to Button. His closest championship threat has been Barrichello, thanks to the consistent success and reliability (today’s gearbox notwithstanding) for both Brawn cars. Now with a single bound, Button puts 10pts on Barrichello and opens up what can only reasonably be described as an “unassailable” lead for the title.

On the podium, Button showed the truth of another axiom – “winning never gets boring”. But Sebastian Vettel looked frustrated and downcast by comparison, and where third place just 12 months ago would have been the best thing in life, now it was a grave disappointment, both personal and let down by the team. In the closing laps, when called upon to back off and conserve the car, vettel had pointedly done nothing of the sort and kept right on running down his team mate even if there was no chance of overtaking him. Where he was top dog last year at Toro Rosso, Vettel is learning it’s a different matter in the grown up world of Red Bull where the alpha male is an Australian.

After the opening lap and the tension about the varying pit stop strategies, the race frankly lapsed into a very dull affair. The measures to improve overtaking in F1 have demonstrably not worked, and those drivers who started down the running order resolutely stayed there. To summarise the race for other drivers:

  • Jarno Trulli had a strong race to finish fourth, despite briefly losing a position to Nico Rosberg during the first pit stops only to recover it at the second round. Timo Glock also finished in the points despite running wide into turn 1 at the start of the day;
  • Williams had a good day, with Rosberg always in the top six and Kazuki Nakajima also set for a career best finish until the second pitstop that was horribly slow with a fumble on the left front wheel change sending him tumbling down to 12th. Still, one of the strongest showings by Williams this year;
  • Ferrari were … Meh. Sorry, but they were. Felipe Massa at least managed to finish in the points, but Kimi Raikkonen was ninth after damaging his front wing in a collision with Fernando Alonso and at one point was even overtaken by Lewis Hamilton on a different pit stop/fuel strategy. Nothing to suggest any sign of a Ferrari renaissance;
  • BMW were better than Monaco, but that’s about it. Robert Kubica featured strongly at certain points at the race but only managed 7th in the end, and Nick Heidfeld was anonymous in 11th;
  • Fernando Alonso gambled on a light fuel load but didn’t do the business in qualifying, which meant that he ended up refuelling early and getting dropped back in traffic and held up thereafter. Nelson Piquet slogged away at the back and on the odd occasion he had a chance to shine, such as battling against Heikki Kovalainen, he managed to make a mistake and allow the McLaren through without a fight. It was rather sad and embarrassing;
  • Hamilton’s gamble with a heavy fuel load paid little dividend, although Lewis will at least take a quantum of solace from ending up in front of his team mate who started ahead of him on the grid. It goes some way towards proving that it’s the car not the driver at fault;
  • The heavy one-stop fuel load really didn’t pay off for Toro Rosso who were stuck at the back for the whole afternoon. Buemi coped better than Sebastien Bourdais, but that’s not saying a huge amount.

At last, then, the 2009 season can be said to be settling down and becoming ‘predictable’. Everyone’s doing more or less what we expect, with some gentle trends up and down but nothing dramatic. Which is very good news for Button and for Brawn, because it would take a seismic shock to derail their championship campaigns now.

Race results

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Button        Brawn GP-Mercedes       1h26:24.848
 2.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +     6.714
 3.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        +     7.461
 4.  Trulli        Toyota                  +    27.843
 5.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +    31.539
 6.  Massa         Ferrari                 +    39.996
 7.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +    46.247
 8.  Glock         Toyota                  +    46.959
 9.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +    50.246
10.  Alonso        Renault                 +  1:02.420
11.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +  1:04.327
12.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +  1:06.376
13.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        +  1:20.454
14.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +     1 lap
15.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +     1 lap
16.  Piquet        Renault                 +     1 lap
17.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes    +     1 lap
18.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Button, 1:27.579

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Barrichello   Brawn GP-Mercedes         49
Fisichella    Force India-Mercedes      5

Championship standings after round 7

A huge leap forward for Jenson Button who is now completely in control of the championship. But let’s not forget, a couple of crashes/failures and DNFs and that 26pt lead could evaporate. Then again, with the stunning performance and consistency of Button and the Brawn this season …

It’s a more worrying situation for Barrichello: the Turkish GP might be the moment in the season where Barrichello’s position as second string and wingman becomes hard to argue against.

Red Bull are proving themselves consistently the best non-Brawn runners out there, and Toyota and BMW seem to have bounced back to a certain degree from their dire Monaco performance; Williams seem to be getting their act together, but there’s no sign of much of a sustained revival from Ferrari of McLaren.

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        61        1.  Brawn GP-Mercedes      96
 2.  Barrichello   35        2.  Red Bull-Renault       56.5
 3.  Vettel        29        3.  Toyota                 32.5
 4.  Webber        27.5      4.  Ferrari                20
 5.  Trulli        19.5      5.  McLaren-Mercedes       13
 6.  Glock         13        6.  Williams-Toyota        11.5
 7.  Rosberg       11.5      7.  Renault                11
 8.  Massa         11        8.  BMW Sauber              8
 9.  Alonso        11        9.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      5
10.  Hamilton       9       
11.  Raikkonen      9       
12.  Heidfeld       6       
13.  Kovalainen     4       
14.  Buemi          3       
15.  Kubica         2       
16.  Bourdais       2       
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