F1: Round 16 – Interlagos, Brazil – 18 October

After a deeply disappointing qualifying session on Saturday, the prospects for Jenson Button winning the world championship today seemed bleak. His team mate and chief rival was on pole, and he himself was back in 14th on the grid. What hope pulling something out of the bag here?

A little over 90 minutes later and we had the answer. And we had a new world champion in both the drivers’ and constructors’ categories. Somehow, Jenson Button had pulled it off, a mixture of pure dumb luck and some brilliant, aggressive driving had taken him beyond reach of his rivals, and he had avoided the dreaded sudden death climax in Abu Dhabi.

How did it happen?

It began with an incident-packed first lap: Interlagos’ first corners are renowned for sparking all manner of chaos and they didn’t disappoint, Rubens Barrichello was safely away in front, but Mark Webber had to tread heavily on Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing to protect his second position allowing Robert Kubica to take third place from the Ferrari.

Right behind, there was heavy contact between Adrian Sutil and Jarno Trulli: Sutil was being held up by the wounded Ferrari of Raikkonen, which was struggling for handling without its front wing, and Trulli tried to sweep around the outside of turn 5. Sutil gave him no room – and probably never even saw him – and Trulli went onto the grass and spun, clipping the back of the Force India and sending them both out of control. Trulli was slammed into the Armco barrier and slid the full length of it before coming to a halt; while Sutil’s car careered over the grass, came back onto the track – and clipped the Renault of the hapless Fernando Alonso who had no where to go. Alonso kept well clear as Trulli stormed over to Sutil in the gravel trap, remonstrating and nearly coming to blow with the Force India driver who was doing a more controlled job of trying to explain what had happened.

And for good measure, we also had a collision toward the back of the field when Sebastian Vettel clipped the McLaren of Heikki Kovalainen into a spin which then collected Giancarlo Fisichella. The good news here was that all three cars were able to regroup and able to carry on with the race, Raikkonen and Kovalainen quickly heading for the pits for running repairs as a safety car was deployed. McLaren also opted to top up Heikki’s fuel and put new tyres on him, but something then went horribly wrong and he sped away from the pit box with the fuel hose still engaged. It ripped the hose off the refuelling rig, and the (small) amount of fuel still in the hose was sprayed over the pit lane – and over Kimi Raikkonen who was exiting right behind. The hot exhaust of the Ferrari then ignited the fuel and there was a flash fire, which while heart-stopping and dramatic (not least because it was right by the pit wall where the teams were working in shirt sleeves rather than fire retardant clothing) it was quickly out seemingly without major repercussions. Down the end of the pit lane, the Brawn team even helpfully extracted the fuel hose from Heikki’s car for him, so that Kovalainen was able to rejoin behind the safety car without any serious loss of time.

Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, appeared bemused by his own team’s strategy. He had been called into the pits as well despite not being caught up in any of the incidents, and having no damage. The team duly peeled off his soft option tyres and topped him up with fuel, but as Lewis radioed in for an explanation you could feel the scepticism oozing from under the helmet: he was now fuelled for one more stop, and had the tricky soft tyres over and done with whereas the other one-stop cars still had to try and make them work for half a race. McLaren were in good shape, Lewis was assured. Hmmm, you could feel him thinking.

All of this mayhem was exactly what Brawn had feared when Button qualified 14th: it’s all too easy to get caught up in someone else’s accident when you’re in the midfield, as Alonso had just painfully found out. But somehow Button had survived the opening lap and moreover thrived, lining up for the restart in 9th place having benefited to the tune of five places already. But this was just the start, the first act – it was still by no means enough.

Button knew it, and he went on a charge as the track went green. On the first lap around, Jenson pulled off a move of beauty on Romain Grosjean through turn 1, who defended far more robustly than anyone would have expected of a rookie. The next lap around and Jenson nailed Kazuki Nakajima in even more emphatic fashion. And then he came up close on Toyota’s rookie driver Kamui Kobayashi – and any hope that the new boy would meekly allow him past were quickly dispelled. He defended for all his might, showing serious form on his début F1 race to the point of absurdity, moving around so much to block Button that he was at the very edge of legality as the two fought it out over the next 16 laps, Button getting more and more frustrated as the leaders ahead started to race off into the distance. Button was appealing for his team to complain to the stewards, but before that could happen Jenson took the matter into his own hands and finally slipped past Kobayashi through turn 1 again on lap 25, really risking it all as he dummied the Toyota into protecting the outside line before diving through on the inside, the two nearly touching and Button struggling to hold on to the Brawn out of the corner but just about pulling it off. And immediately he was away, pulling out a 3s lap over Kobayashi within the next couple of laps. But had the long delay wrecked Button’s chances?

Up ahead, Rubens Barrichello had already pitted from the lead on lap 22, and it did not go well for him: he emerged in traffic and was immediately held up, so that not only did Mark Webber manage to come out from his own stop on lap 27 well in front of Rubens, but the Brawn was even leapfrogged by Kubica, putting Rubens down in 3rd place and making it very, very difficult to score the points he needed to keep the title fight alive.

After this breathless and frankly spectacular opening act of the race, things had to settle down – and they did, falling into a pattern but losing none of the tension as the various pit strategies played out and fortunes ebbed and flowed. Rubens, for example, was finding none of the pace on the new tyres that he had enjoyed in the earlier laps, howling “What’s happened to the car?” over the cockpit radio as he started to fall back from Webber and Kubica who were now far in the lead and never to be seen again.

Now his attention had to be on protecting his third place; not finishing on the podium would make it just too easy for Button to wrap up the title. And Rubens was finding his position under threat from Lewis Hamilton, who – just as McLaren had forecast and planned – was now finding the race coming to him. He was on the prime tyres and had only one stop to make, and soon found himself in fourth and closing fast on Barrichello. On lap 62, Lewis made his move out of the final corner: Rubens tried to pinch Lewis against the pit wall to block him, and while he took care to leave enough room for it not end in an accident, the move had come so late that the end plate of Hamilton’s front wing came into contact with Barrichello’s left rear tyre. McLaren held their breath, but the wing held, handling didn’t appear to suffer, and Hamilton completed the move to take third place away from Barrichello.

But it was all falling apart for Rubens, and the day had one final kick left to give him: the contact with Hamilton’s end plate had punctured Rubens tyre. He would have to pit for an emergency tyre change, and that would drop him down to 8th place; critically it would put him behind his team mate who was now running up in 5th place after all the mayhem, strategy and overtaking. It was game over for the title as far as Rubens was concerned.

What about Vettel, the only other person left in the title fight? With Button in 5th place there was no chance for the Red Bull driver to keep his title hopes alive either. He had managed to survive his first lap clash with Kovalainen unscathed, and had made good progress up the field thanks to a genuine one-stop strategy from the start after his own dismal qualifying performance. But fourth wasn’t nearly good enough: even if Button had failed to score a point, Vettel needed 1st or 2nd today and he was no where near it as Webber and Kubica had those positions sealed up. Vettel’s world title dream, too, was toast.

The laps ticked down; surely there could be no final sting in the tale to turn everything on its head? After last year’s frankly unbelievable end to the Brazilian GP that had flipped the title to Hamilton on the last corner of the last lap of the last race of the season, no one was prepared to assume anything was in the bag. There was nervous talk of a late shower, but none arrived; the only other retirements were already out of the way (Nick Heidfeld ran out of fuel after the refuelling rig failed to do what it said on the tin and inject any fuel into the BMW during the pit stop; Williams’ Nico Rosberg retired with gearbox failure; and Kazuki Nakajima crashed out after Kobayashi’s overly-belligerent blocking style finally resulted in a collision). The race was spent, and everyone (drivers, crews and viewers alike) was exhausted and just desperately wanted it to end and free the pent-up tension.

As Felipe Massa waved the chequered flag from the pit wall, the deed was done and the realisation set in: the world titles were decided. Jenson Button said it for everyone: “We are the champions!” he sang (badly, to be honest, but it’s F1 not the X-Factor) proclaiming both his own and his team’s astonishing triumph against all odds.

Almost unnoticed was Mark Webber cruising to his second Grand Prix victory of the year: with all the drama of the world title he’d hardly been on screen once jumping Rubens at the first pit stop. His drive had been perfect and flawless – “no worries, mate!” – and deserved far more attention, but the podium celebrations were overshadowed by bedlam in the paddock as Jenson Button arrived and ran about like a mad man, high-fiving and hugging everyone who wasn’t nailed down.

After qualifying yesterday I suggested that “Button’s timidity, and Barrichello’s heroic gamble, may end up defining the 2009 Formula 1 champion.” Ironically, Button’s bitter depression after qualifying yesterday was the making of him: it was he who came out on race day with a fierce burning desire to salvage the situation and win the title here and now, while Barrichello ended up trying to be the more cautious driver trying to protect his pole position, and it fell apart in his hands.

It meant that once again the title was decided at Sao Paulo; and for a second year, it involved a Brit beating a Brazilian to the title. And to make matters worse, Lewis Hamilton had once again played a significant role in denying a local hero a key win. Lewis will need to be smuggled out of Brazil in hand luggage tonight to avoid the local fans! How he came away with a podium from this is astounding – possibly the story of the day if it hadn’t all been about the title race – and he owes his team strategist a huge thank you.

But let’s not forget what we said at the start of the season, about what a fairy tale that first Brawn victory – and the second, and the third – had been for Brawn GP, a team that had one foot in the grave at the start of the season and which surely had no right to be winning races let alone competing for a title. I wonder what the mood at Honda is tonight as they watch the title that could have been theirs …

So here we are at the end of the year, and the fairy tale has an even better ending than anyone could have dared hope. Brawn GP – and Ross Brawn in particular – thoroughly deserve their stunning moment in the spotlight as world champions. And in Jenson Button – who stayed with the team even when all appeared lost – they have an equally worthy world champion driver. It’s a shame for Rubens, who is immensely likeable, but to his credit he was among the first to congratulate his team mate in a sincerely and fulsome style.

This is, therefore, the first time in 40 years we’ve had consecutive British world champions in Formula 1. Jenson and Lewis should be proud of the bit of history they have mutually created. The rest of us can go lie down and take our blood pressure meds, and just be relieved that we don’t have to go through all this again in two weeks time for the final event of the season, which becomes a de facto exhibition race and celebration of the 2009 Brawn GP triumph.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                  Time
 1.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault      1h32:23.081
 2.  Kubica        BMW Sauber            +     7.626
 3.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      +    18.944
 4.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault      +    19.652
 5.  Button        Brawn-Mercedes        +    29.005
 6.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               +    33.340
 7.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +    35.991
 8.  Barrichello   Brawn-Mercedes        +    45.454
 9.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      +    48.499
10.  Kobayashi     Toyota                +  1:03.324
11.  Fisichella    Ferrari               +  1:10.665
12.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes  +  1:11.388
13.  Grosjean      Renault               +  1 lap
14.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari    +  1 lap

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:13.733

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Nakajima      Williams-Toyota           31
Rosberg       Williams-Toyota           28
Heidfeld      BMW Sauber                22
Sutil         Force India-Mercedes      1
Trulli        Toyota                    1
Alonso        Renault                   1

World Championship standings after round 16

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        89        1.  Brawn-Mercedes        161
 2.  Vettel        74        2.  Red Bull-Renault      135.5
 3.  Barrichello   72        3.  McLaren-Mercedes       71
 4.  Webber        61.5      4.  Ferrari                70
 5.  Hamilton      49        5.  Toyota                 54.5
 6.  Raikkonen     48        6.  Williams-Toyota        34.5
 7.  Rosberg       34.5      7.  BMW Sauber             32
 8.  Trulli        30.5      8.  Renault                26
 9.  Alonso        26        9.  Force India-Mercedes   13
10.  Glock         24       10.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      7
11.  Kovalainen    22       
12.  Massa         22       
13.  Kubica        17       
14.  Heidfeld      15       
15.  Fisichella     8       
16.  Sutil          5       
17.  Buemi          5       
18.  Bourdais       2  

  1. Fantastic champions drive from Jenson Button to deservedly get the title. His overtaking was sublime and he got the job done!

  1. 1 This Morning’s Twitter Trends « The Communication Age

    […] World Champion of the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix (although he placed 5th in time). According to internet blog posts it was pretty incredible, he had did a lot of catching up after a bad […]

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