F1: Button pulls off extraordinary Canadian victory

McLaren’s day went from hope to despair only to finish in ecstasy in a quite extraordinary Canadian Grand Prix that took more than four hours to complete.

All pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

At one point during the Canadian Grand Prix, so much had gone wrong for the McLaren team and their two drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button that I quipped to a friend, “Well, this race isn’t going to make it onto the McLaren greatest hits compilation DVD.”

Which just goes to show what I (or any other expert or fan) knows, because by the end Jenson Button described it as “a fantastic race – even if I hadn’t win I would have enjoyed it. An amazing win and possibly my best.” He went on, “Definitely one of those grands prix where you are nowhere and then somewhere. The last one is the important one to be leading and I was leading half of it. An amazing day, I don’t know what else to say really.”

Frankly, everyone was in the same situation – speechless and reeling from a succession of incidents, any one of which would have been enough to dominate the headlines after a “routine” Grand Prix and yet this week shunted into being mere passing notes and anecdotes.

The early signs hadn’t been promising. While some rain had been forecast for the day, the amount of rainfall prior to the face had caught everyone by surprised and the race officials decided that the race would have to start behind a safety car, always the most anti-climactic way to begin any motor race. After five laps of this, the safety car finally came in racing got underway with polesitter Sebastian Vettel pulling out all the usual tricks to ensure he kept the lead, but even so nearly getting caught out by Fernando Alonso on the run down into turn 1.

Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber was also looking a little wary at the start and approached turn 1 with trepidation – but Lewis Hamilton had no such qualms, and when he saw Webber going a little wide at the first corner he decided it was an invitation to dive through. Contact was the result, Webber spinning on the approach into turn 2 and Hamilton forced to run off-track to avoid further hits. Both cars came through without damage but they lost positions – the Red Bull dropped to 14th.

“What Hamilton did there goes beyond all boundaries,” Niki Lauda said, working as a commentator for RTL television at Montreal. “He is completely mad … If the FIA does not punish him, I do not understand the world any more. At some point there has to be an end to all the jokes. You cannot drive like this – as it will result in someone getting killed.”

Inevitably the word came down that the incident was being looked at by the race stewards – given Hamilton’s torrid time with authority at Monaco, new penalties seemed almost a given. He didn’t help himself when he pressed on regardless and pressured Michael Schumacher into the turn 10 hairpin, only for Schumacher – looking back to near his best in these wet conditions – made an emphatic jink left that forced Hamilton out wide to avoid another collision.

That caused Hamilton to lose more places and drop immediately behind his McLaren team mate. Hamilton was not happy with this as he was clearly the faster of the team’s two cars at this stage, and something like red mist descended on Lewis as they came down the start/finish straight on lap seven. When Button was slow out of the final corner, Lewis thought he saw an opening on the outside line between Button and the pit wall – but that was right on the normal racing line Button would take into turn 1. Not expecting a rash challenge from his own team mate, and unsighted by the water spray, Button moved along his normal line … Only to find Lewis already there trying to overtake.

The two collided; Button got off relatively lightly – although he was on the team radio to yell angrily “what is he doing?” – but for Hamilton the situation was far worse. The situation ha thrown him into contact with the pit wall and the impact had wrecked his left rear wheel and suspension. Thinking it was just a puncture he tried to nurse it back to the pits only to be ordered by the team to park it up. He seemed in a sulky mood about being ordered to park up by the team when he spoke to reporters: “The team said I had a broken suspension and so I pulled over, but when I got out that wasn’t the case”, Hamilton told reporters. “It was only the tyre that was busted.”

Actually it wasn’t, and when the car was finally returned to the pit lane under safety car conditions it was clear that more serious damage had been done to the rear suspension and driveshaft and that the team had been right to order him to stop: the damage was certainly terminal. Meanwhile Button had to pit for new tyres (opting for the risky intermediates) and a check-up – and was also under an investigation by the stewards for the clash with Hamilton – and this looked like the worst possible race outcome for McLaren especially when for good measure Jenson was then handed a drive-thru penalty for not keeping to the safety car speed differentials as he had tried to race back to pit lane.

This was the moment when any McLaren fan would have packed up and decided “not our week”. In front, it was still firmly looking like Sebastian Vettel’s day, and the two Ferraris were also coming on strong as was Michael Schumacher, perking up more than any other time we’ve seen him since his comeback to active racing. Mark Webber was also having some fun as he sought to work his way back up from the midfield from his costly contact with Hamilton at the start.

Just to prove how badly things were turning for McLaren, even the Hail Mary risky decision to switch to intermediates had backfired. It had allowed Jenson to make some impressive headway from way back down the field following his penalty, but then around 25 minutes into the race a new weather front arrived at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and it started to rain – a lot. Button, and everyone else who had risked the change from full wets, were forced into the pits.

This weather front had been expected, and had been described as a “shower”. No one was expecting what followed, which rapidly ramped up to a monsoon of almost Malaysian intensity. And nor was it a brief shower, either. Soon even the TV cameras – which much better sensitivity in such conditions that the human eye – were displaying just banks to featureless grey clouds of water. Whether it was water from the falling rain, rain bouncing up from the tack or rain being thrown up by the F1 cars no longer mattered, all that did was that no one could see anything. And the track was flooding, too.

The race officials called in the safety car before one minor incident became a total wipe-out; ten minutes later, after receiving feedback from the drivers, the officials went one step further and threw a red flag to suspend the race at the end of lap 25 and park everyone up on the starting grid to allow the weather front to pass through. The race was no where near the three-quarter distance that would allow the race to be called with full points, so a restart was very much on the cards.

Hoping that it would be a brief pause for the shower to roll over, it turned instead into a two hour hiatus as the track staff worked overtime to try and do something about the streams of water and deep pools collecting on the track. Finally, though, the skies lightened and the rain eased off: drivers who had been wondering around pit lane were recalled to their cars and TV commentators who had been left with the nightmare scenario of filling dead time with nothing to talk about except the local wildlife were given something to commentate on.

After nine laps behind the safety car, the track was deemed safe enough to resume proper racing. In fact the officials had been too cautious and the track was now already safe enough for most drivers to decide it was time for intermediate tyres, so everyone duly plunged into the pit lane with Vettel – putting safety first – among the last to make the switch.

Just when we thought we’d seen the last of the safety car and that things couldn’t get any worse for Jenson Button, we were proved wrong. Button had been putting his new intermediates to good use and was scything his way up the positions but then came up against Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari at turn 3. Alonso seemed to be running wide, Button went down the inside, Alonso turned in – and contact was inevitable. It was relatively innocuous for Button who continued back to pit lane for some new tyres as a precaution, but the contact spun Alonso around and left him beached on the high banked kerbing which meant a safety car was needed to allow the Ferrari to be retrieved. Inevitably word came down form the stewards that the incident would be investigated after the race.

The race was quickly underway again and after his latest stop, Jenson Button was starting from dead last (21st position.) The adage that “things always look darkest before the dawn” must have seemed like very black humour to Jenson at this point, but he wasn’t about to just curl up and die: he had fresh tyres, a fast car, and a lot of backmarkers to take his frustration out on. He started moving up the field, and suddenly his race came alive as he found he liked nothing more than a bit of real, rough-and-tumble racing and the thrill of some actual motor racing rather than putting in the laps and staying out of trouble. And sometimes, actual motor racing can pay off, even in these sanitised days of high-precision technical cars.

Once the DRS was activated (it had been disabled under wet conditions) it was as if someone had attached an after-burner to the McLaren and Button was able to tear through the field. Pretty much everyone had written him off by this time, but then suddenly there he was on the timing screens and on the television coverage bearing down on Kamui Kobayashi for fourth place – and blasting by him with ease, his pace now a staggering four seconds a lap faster than the race leader, Sebastian Vettel.

Behind him, Nick Heidfeld attempted to close up on Kobayashi himself but instead ran into the back of the Sauber at turn 2 when the Japanese driver had struggled to get the power down. Heidfeld’s front wing was wrecked, but then unfortunately fell off right in front of the Renault and launched it briefly into the air in one of those nightmare scenarios all drivers worry about. Fortunately in this case airtime was limited and Heidfeld returned to earth, slid along the barrier and down into an escape road without too much drama.

The race, however, needed yet another safety car period because of the amount of front wing debris now scattered all over the track. A flaw with the current safety car procedures was also apparent: with drivers having to stick within the “safety car speed differentials” wherever they were on the track, it left the field very string out and taking a long time to catch up with the safety car itself. That meant that every time the track marshals through they had a gap to go out onto the track to remove the debris, another straggling group of cars would show up around the bend. The TV cameras caught one heart-stopping moment when a marshal fell on the still-wet slippery track surface just as a car appeared: even under safety car conditions an F1 car is going at a good 60 or 70mph and for a moment both marshal and driver were grappling with which way to dive to avoid a potentially dreadful collision.

The safety car period did mean that the field was packed closer together for the restart with nine laps remaining – which meant that Button was close to Vettel, Schumacher and Webber and in with a shot of a podium place after all. A chance was all he needed to be motivated to get down to work.

Vettel was first to act, realising the danger and now putting his foot down to pull out an immediate safety cushion at the end of the caution period. Webber was next to act, dispatching Schumacher on lap 65 only then overrun the chicane in so doing, forcing him to hand the position back to Schumacher (which he neatly managed to do without offering Button any opportunistic opening) and try again next lap by.

But instead, the next lap through saw Webber make a mistake through the final chicane and nearly lose the back of the Red Bull into the wall of champions; Button saw the red carpet, and even though it meant moving off the dry line and onto a fully wet part of the track on his slicks, he went for it. He was rewarded with third place and quickly pulled away from Webber before any counterattack could ensue, and Button then quickly caught up with Michael Schumacher and blasted past him with the aid of the DRS system.

That left Button in second place, but Vettel was now too far in front. By the time Button had closed up on the leader it was the penultimate lap, and despite being the slower car it was clear that the Red Bull held all the high cards and should have no trouble holding on for the last couple of minutes before the chequered flag came out, the final lap just slipping inside the two hour time limit despite the five extended safety car periods.

Jenson Button must still have been grinning from ear to ear at the sensational recover he had made – from last to second place, one helluva achievement considering the nightmare early laps for McLaren. Perhaps, when he saw Vettel skate off the track ahead of him, Button thought that we was literally dreaming – delierious, even – because there was no way in hell that this would actually happen: Vettel never cracked. Vettel never made silly mistakes. Vettel had been perfect the entire race, there was no way he’d give it away just a few turns from the end.

But Vettel had. He ran deep into turn 3 and went sideways, just about controlling the car and preventing total disaster but not nearly good enough to stop Button from blasting his way past into the lead. A minute later and Button was through the final corner, past the wall of champions – and staring at the chequered flag, which was for him for the first time since China in April 2010.

From disaster to triumph, Button had given McLaren perhaps its most famous victory in the last few years: “The 2011 Canadian Grand Prix may well be remembered as one of the most eventful, exciting and suspenseful races in Formula 1 history,” said the team’s Martin Whitmarsh. “I’ve heard the word ‘unbelievable’ shouted at me by joyful colleagues about a hundred times this afternoon, and in truth Jenson’s drive was exactly that: absolutely unbelievable. Other adjectives that spring to mind are ‘heroic’, ‘majestic’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘superb’!”

The battle wasn’t entirely over at the chequered flag, however – there was still the outstanding matter of the investigation into Button’s clash with Fernando Alonso mid-race, which could yet have seen Button lose the victory. However it seemed that the race officials – bolstered this week by two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi as the drivers’ representative – had every desire to get out of Montreal without being lynched by irate fans, and the decision came down that no action would be taken against Button over the collision.

Their statement pointed out that Alonso had been on a slow out-lap from the pits and that Button had his car “firmly established on the inside line prior to the entry of the corner and drove onto the kerb to avoid Car 5 on the outside.” Accordingly, “In view of the conditions and the statements by both drivers and their team representatives, the Stewards decide that this was a ‘racing incident’ and have taken no further action.”

Even Ferrari’s team principal Stefano Domenicali seemed to concede that, while Button was still mainly responsible for his driver’s exit in his eyes, he couldn’t be expected to take all the blame. “The conditions were tricky because on the inside the line was slippery, because Jenson had a little bit of understeer in that moment,” he said. “We just had bad luck today.”

Nor was there any steward action arising from Button’s clash with Hamilton earlier in the race: “It appears from the position of Hamilton at that moment … that Button was unlikely to have seen Hamilton,” said the stewards’ statement. “At the point of contact Button had not yet moved as far to the left of the track as he had on the previous lap, or that Schumacher had on that lap.

“The Stewards have concluded that it was reasonable for Hamilton to believe that Button would have seen him and that he could have made the passing manoeuvre. Further, the Stewards have concluded that it is reasonable to believe that Button was not aware of Hamilton’s position to his left.

“Therefore, the Stewards decide that this was a ‘racing incident’ and have taken no further action.”

Cue a sigh of relief from everyone in the paddock, because no one – not even Red Bull – would have wanted one of the all-time great GPs ruined by post-race tinkering.

There were of course plenty of other stories going on during the wet Sunday afternoon. There was Paul di Resta having a fabulous race until he ended up running into the back of Nick Heidfeld and wrecking his front wing, getting a drive-thru and then finally ruing an early attempt to switch to slicks that saw him snap out, touch the wall and wreck his suspension.

And there was Michael Schumacher, suddenly looking more alive than anytime since his return from retirement, who looked set for a podium position at long last until finally the Mercedes was outclassed in the drying conditions later in the race and proved no match for Button and Webber going through.

There was also Ferrari, who lost Alonso in that incident with Jenson Button mid-race and then saw Felipe Massa – who had been running strongly right behind his team mate early in the race – slump to a rather underwhelming sixth place by the end; or Kamui Kobayashi who was in second place when the race was red flagged thanks to not having been lured in for any pit stop tyre changes up to that point, who was disappointed to end up in seventh just ahead of Toro Rosso’s Jamie Alguersuari who had been wild and accident-prone in the practice and qualifying sessions at Montreal amid rumours that he’s about to be replaced at the team, but who did a quietly impressive and accident-free race performance.

But really the crux of the story of Montreal 2011 would be Jenson Button’s astounding, triumphant day; Lewis Hamilton’s red mist; the weather playing a major, starring role in proceedings; and that rarest of sights, a mistake by Sebastian Vettel at a critical moment that showed a chink (at last!) in the young German’s armour after all.

Race result

Pos Driver              Team                      Time
 1. Jenson Button       McLaren-Mercedes    4:04:39.537s
 2. Sebastian Vettel    Red Bull-Renault     +    2.709s
 3. Mark Webber         Red Bull-Renault     +   13.828s
 4. Michael Schumacher  Mercedes             +   14.219s
 5. Vitaly Petrov       Renault              +   20.395s
 6. Felipe Massa        Ferrari              +   33.225s
 7. Kamui Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari       +   33.270s
 8. Jaime Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +   35.964s
 9. Rubens Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +   45.117s
10. Sebastien Buemi     Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +   47.056s
11. Nico Rosberg        Mercedes             +   50.454s
12. Pedro de la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari       + 1:03.607s
13. Tonio Liuzzi        HRT-Cosworth         +    1 Lap
14. Jerome D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    1 Lap
15. Timo Glock          Virgin-Cosworth      +    1 Lap
16. Jarno Trulli        Lotus-Renault        +    1 Lap
17. Narain Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    1 Lap
18. Paul di Resta       Force India-Mercedes +    3 Laps

Retirements:

Driver             Team                Laps
Pastor Maldonado   Williams-Cosworth     61
Nick Heidfeld      Renault               55
Adrian Sutil       Force India-Mercedes  49
Fernando Alonso    Ferrari               36
Heikki Kovalainen  Lotus-Renault         28
Lewis Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes       7

World Championship standings after round 7

Drivers                      Constructors             
 1. Sebastian Vettel   161   1. Red Bull-Renault     255
 2. Jenson Button      101   2. McLaren-Mercedes     186
 3. Mark Webber        94    3. Ferrari              101
 4. Lewis Hamilton     85    4. Renault               60
 5. Fernando Alonso    69    5. Mercedes              52
 6. Felipe Massa       32    6. Sauber-Ferrari        27
 7. Vitaly Petrov      31    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    12
 8. Nick Heidfeld      29    8. Force India-Mercedes  10
 9. Michael Schumacher 26    9. Williams-Cosworth      4
10. Nico Rosberg       26
11. Kamui Kobayashi    25
12. Adrian Sutil        8
13. Sebastien Buemi     8
14. Jaime Alguersuari   4
15. Rubens Barrichello  4
16. Sergio Perez        2
17. Paul Di Resta       2
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