Notably among the top qualifiers in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, Jenson Button employed an alternate tire strategy, starting on primes rather than the options. This meant that his first tire stint would be the longer of his two stints during the race. On effect of this was that the race leaders, after making their obligatory stop, would come out behind Button. If Button slowed a bit, allowing himself to be caught but not passed, he would cause a bottleneck that might allow his team mate Lewis Hamilton make a run at the two Red Bulls (of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber) and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari, who were ahead of him.
Red Bull’s team boss Christian Horner has insinuated that this was, in fact, McLaren’s game plan, until Hamilton’s gearbox lost third gear, at which point they changed plans. As Horner told The Daily Telegraph, “We were a bit concerned by Jenson’s race strategy, as we knew we would come out behind him and then he started to back everybody up towards Hamilton. It was sort of like being in a McLaren sandwich. But then it looked like Hamilton developed a problem and they aborted that strategy for Jenson. It looked a little bit like he was a sacrificial lamb. I don’t know. It just seemed strange.”
McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh has answered the charge somewhat ambiguously. When asked if there was a possibility that McLaren would employ a “sacrificial lamb” strategy, Whitmarsh said, “Yes there was.” He then qualified that remark by saying, “But at that point we also had to consider Jenson. We wanted to give him enough time on the option tyre, to have a go. If we had left him out there longer… it is not how we play our game. Maybe others would but that is not how we go motor racing.”
While it’s not unusual for a team to try to cover all their bases by having their cars follow different pit strategies, it’s worth noting that the way those strategies are deployed often favor one driver over another. In this case, it seems as though Button was given the higher-risk approach, the success of which was dependent on the short lifespan of the race leaders’ option tires. As it happened, those option tires wore rather well, which more or less nullified Button’s strategy.
Button started sixth, and he moved up two places due to the retirement of Renault’s Robert Kubica and the mechanical issues of his team mate. Would he have made the podium had he started on the options, as Hamilton had? Not likely. So you can’t really say he lost anything by starting on primes. But again, one wonders if the McLaren brain trust was using a game plan that was designed to favor Hamilton.
McLaren has always asserted that they don’t support assigning their drivers number one and number two status, but events haven’t always borne that out. David Coultard was generally expected to support Mika Hakkinen’s races, and Heikki Kovalainen played second fiddle to Lewis Hamilton. In the latter case, granted, the Finn was slower than Hamilton, but according to Kovalainen, he was always made to run with heavier fuel loads during qualifying (when rules stipulated that Q3 qualifiers set their times carrying the fuel loads they would use at the start of the race).
I suspect that does system has its flaws, and frequently some people are treated as more equal than others.