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Button Takes the Win in Melbourne – Analysis

Jenson Button leading Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne

Jenson Button has taken his first win with his new team, McLaren, in Australia.  After all the critics who had rubbished his chances of beating his more highly regarded team mate, Lewis Hamilton, the victory must have been sweet for the defending world champion.  Clearly, the stage had been set for Button to better his team mate when he outqualified Hamilton on Saturday.  Button started fourth on the grid, while Hamilton managed to slot in eleventh.

The Melbourne grand prix was clearly an antidote to the boredom of Bahrain two weeks ago.  The excitement began in the first turn when Fernando Alonso had too much wheel spin on his start.  He allowed team mate Felipe Massa (who’d gotten a terrific start) to shoot past him, and in trying to make up lost ground, tried to muscle his way past his rivals in Turn 1, running three abreast with Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher, the latter of whom was also quick off the grid.

Sadly, the maneuver ended in tears.  Alonso bounced off of Hamilton on his right, which sent him into Schumacher’s car on his left, which detached the German’s front wing. Alonso spun nearly 180 degrees, and had to wait for the field to pass him by before he could rejoin the proceedings.  Meanwhile, Schumacher had to pit for a new wing, which effectively ruined his race.

There was another incident shortly thereafter in Turn 6, which saw Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, minus a front wing which he’d alrady lost in a previous shunt, ricochet off of a wall and into Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso and Nico Hulkenberg’s Williams, taking all three out of the race.  After this, the safety car was deployed.

By the time this melee had been sorted out, the Sebastian Vettel was still leading in his Red Bull, with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, Red Bull’s Mark Webber, Renault’s Robert Kubica, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and McLaren’s Button and Hamilton all in the front pack.  Once the saftey car had pulled in, and the racing had become more orderly, it was clear that Hamilton was on a charge.  He made his way around his team mate fairly quickly, and took off after those ahead.

Meanwhile, Button made the crucial decision of the race: he came in for slicks.  It was entirely his decision, not the team’s, and it was a gamble that paid off.  He was soon setting very quick lap times – so quick, in fact, that most of the other teams decided to follow suit.  But the time pit stops were completed, Button found himself in second place.

On lap 26, a second decisive event occurred which would ultimately hand Button the win: Sebastian Vettel, who had been leading comfortably (again), suffered a front brake failure, which sent him into the gravel.  His day was done.

Hamilton was still on a charge, and managed to make his way around Webber and Rosberg, and had Kubica in his sights, but by that time his tires were visibly degrading, and he was unable to rattle the Pole into making an error.  Note too, Kubica is notoriously difficult to overtake.

In a move that would prove to be controversial, McLaren brought Hamilton in for a new set of slicks, after which he rejoined the field behind Massa and Alonso, in fifth.  He set some blistering times to catch the Ferraris, but once he reached their slipstreams he was unable to pass.  He made a daring attempt on Alonso at one point, but when Alonso protected his position, and Hamilton went off the racing line, Mark Webber, who was shadowing Hamilton, saw an opportunity and pounced.  Unfortunately, the pounce turned into a punt, and he and Hamilton both spun.  Ultimately, Hamilton finished sixth, while Webber finished with egg on his face.

While in pursuit of Alonso, Hamilton had chided the team over the radio for their “terrible” decision to bring him in for a second set of slicks.  He later was quoted as saying that the team had, in effect, ruined his race.  Later still, he amended this sentiment, presumably after a huddle with McLaren’s PR flack, to something much softer, saying, according to  Autosport, “The team has explained to me their reasoning behind the second pitstop, and I can understand what they were trying to do intrying to cover both Mark and Nico for later in the race.”

In fact, Webber and Rosberg had both taken on fresh slicks, while Button, Kubica, Massa and Alonso had not.  The one-stoppers all finished ahead of Hamilton, and the two-stoppers behind him, which would seem to confirm that the one-stop strategy was more effective. However, this wouldn’t have been self-evident from the pit-wall.

“We are still learning about this year’s tyres and the degradation, and perhaps we over-estimated the wear that the frontrunners were expecting to suffer,” Hamilton went on to say. “It’s something you learn from, and we’ll use that knowledge to help us improve throughout this season.”   Clearly, the teams are still feeling their way in terms of formulating pit stop strategy under the refueling ban.

The fact is, Button made a correct judgment, and Hamilton and the team didn’t. Hamilton could have told the team he was content to finish the race on his first pair of slicks, but this only looks like an obvious choice in hindsight, and might not have been correct in any case. Hamilton was driving aggressively, and he’s notorious for chewing up his tires. Button is much easier on his rubber.

In the end, while Hamilton might have raced his heart out, making a number of his signature bold passes, Button was the hero of the day: he let the race come his way, and drove calmly and intelligently to take the win. While Hamilton might have more natural speed than Button, and might be a more aggressive racer, Button proved that he was able to read conditions and dictate his own pit stop strategy, which is something that eluded Hamilton, at least at Melbourne.

Further, Button exploited in his trademark smooth style, which preserved his tires, and allowed him to drive 50 laps on one set of slicks, without showing signs of tire degradation.  While he clearly benefitted from Vettel’s misfortune, he made the most of the opportunity when it came his way, and essentially outfoxed everyone else, including Hamilton, who was left complaining about the team’s pit call.

Also worth noting: Fernando Alonso, who slipped down to 22nd place after his first lap incident, drove like a bat out of hell, making a charge more impressive than even Hamilton’s, to take fourth place.  It was the type of drive we used to expect from Michael Schumacher under similar conditions.

Meanwhile, Schumacher, who also made his way from dead last after the first corner incident, found slicing his way through backmarkers to be rough going.  He was stuck behind Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso for much of the afternoon.  In the end, he was able to pass Alguersuari and also Sauber’s Pedro de la Rosa to capture a single point.  Schumacher, who is coming under fire in the press for making a sluggish comeback, put a positive face on the performance, saying he was having fun.

There are now reports circulating that Schumacher is actually earning something closer to 30 million euros in salary, rather that the 6 million which had been previously reported.  If that’s true, it won’t be long before Mercedes expects him to produce results, regardless of how much fun he’s having.

Image by f1photos.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

Pos. Driver Team Time
1 Button McLaren-Mercedes 1h33:36.531
2 Kubica Renault + 12.034
3 Massa Ferrari + 14.488
4 Alonso Ferrari + 16.304
5 Rosberg Mercedes + 16.683
6 Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 29.898
7 Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes + 59.847
8 Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1:00.536
9 Webber Red Bull-Renault + 1:07.319
10 Schumacher Mercedes + 1:09.391
11 Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:11.301
12 De la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari + 1:14.084
13 Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth + 2 laps
14 Chandhok HRT-Cosworth + 4 laps
DNF Glock Virgin-Cosworth 41 laps
DNF Vettel Red Bull-Renault 26 laps
DNF Di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 25 laps
DNF Sutil Force India-Mercedes 12 laps
DNF Petrov Renault 10 laps
DNF Senna HRT-Cosworth 5 laps
DNF Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1 lap
DNF Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1 lap
DNF Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1 lap
DNF Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1 lap
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