Felipe Massa, eager to rejoin the Formula 1 fray after his injury in Hungary, has offered his opinion about the current title contest, in lieu of being able to participate in the fight on track.
In Massa’s opinion, Jenson Button’s recent loss of form is simply a case of his cracking under pressure. As Massa explained to The Guardian, “At the start of the season everything was nice, everything was easy. He was in a new team winning six out of the first seven races. That’s different to fighting hard for the championship. Now he has a different kind of pressure. In the earlier races he was almost half a second quicker than some teams. You win the race easy and there is not so much pressure. But now we have races where things are more difficult. So for me the pressure has had a big impact on his mind – and he needs to deal with it better. If he does not cope with the pressure he will not win the championship.”
Button has publicly refuted the notion that he’s choking under the pressure of a title chase. He’s insisted that the problem has been getting the car setup right, rather than getting his mind right. There are two things to say about this.
First, Button has never been in this position before. He’s no longer a promising rookie, he’s a seasoned vetreran, with 167 starts under his belt. That’s 68 more races than triple champ Jackie Stewart contested. He’s spent much of his career mid-field, or as a backmarker. This has been largely due the poor car packages, as opposed to poor performance. So, while he’s served out a long apprenticeship in hopes of being in line for a title shot one day, he’s never actually had to deal with the pressure of trying to keep his game up while the clock runs out. This is a new experience for him, and judging by outward appearances, the pressure is having an impact.
Secondly, as Michael Schumacher has pointed out on a number of occasions, one of the key attributes of a champion is consistency. This, in fact, was one of Schumacher’s great qualities. Many drivers will admit that they perform well at certain venues, and are mediocre at others. Schumi was good everywhere, as were Senna and Prost and most of the greats before them. Likewise, Schumi had the ability to be better than the car, when the car was substandard. Ditto Senna and Prost. Consistency in the face of pressure and techincal issues is the mark of a true champion. Clearly, for whatever reason, it is also the quality that Button is lacking this year. Like the economy, his results have fallen off a cliff.
Ultimately, the standard metric for any driver’s performance is the performance of his team mate. Brawn’s maiden season provides a fascinating scenario. In the opening rounds, they looked bulletproof as a team, with Button clearly having the edge over Barrichello. As their competitors have caught up, Barrichello has begun to outperform Button on a regular basis. If you were to chart their relative performance, you’d see two arcs sloping in opposite directions. Presumably they have the same equipment, and the same opportunity. Button’s lead has dwindled to 16 points over Barrichello, and Barrichello, who presumably was toughened by his years at Ferrari, seems to be the driver who is better able to capitalize on his position at the moment. If Button doesn’t get his game together, he might see his lead dwindle to less than zero by season’s end.