Has Jenson's Button been undone?

 

The 2012 Formula 1 season has certainly been a strange one for 2009 World Champion Jenson Button. The popular Brit's season could definitely be described as a mixed bag. For all the good things that have happened; there have been equally as many bad things. So why is it that JB has seemingly struggled on so many occasions this season? It's time to do some investigating.

For me at least, it has been qualifying that has been the most challenging part of the weekend for Jenson on many an occasion this season. There are some drivers, the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, that just seem to be able to switch the tyres on perfectly for a one lap, super fast run. It's for this reason that they frequently manage to qualify so high up on the grid. Jenson on the other hand often appears to have much more of an issue in getting the tyres to come in just at the right time for that one, decisive lap.

With the recent additions of DRS and KERS to the sport, you could argue that qualifying is now not as important as it once was, given the tools that drivers now have at their disposal for overtaking (in theory). However, no driver wants to qualify badly. No driver wants to qualify in the midfield, especially if they have a car like that of the McLaren. Unfortunately that has happened far too often for Jenson's liking this season. He's failed to make it through to Q3 on two occasions this season; one of those at Silverstone where he didn't even make it through Q1. There's also been several times where we've seen Jenson just scrape through to the top 10 shootout with a last minute dash, but has then only been able to convert that into a P9 or P10 starting position. That area of the grid is probably the most dangerous place to be; surrounded by cars front, back and side. Poor qualifying is what ultimately has cost Jenson when it comes to the race on Sundays.

Let's have a look at his race results so far this season. This is really where the 'mixed bag' phrase I used earlier really comes to fruition. Australia - 1st, Malaysia - 14th, China - 2nd, Bahrain - 18th, Spain - 9th, Monaco - 16th, Canada - 16th, Europe - 8th, Great Britain - 10th, Germany - 2nd and Hungary - 6th. Jenson's season to date has had everything from a stunning and superb win in Australia at the opening round, to a run of just 7 points in 6 races between the Bahrain and British Grand Prix's.

As previously said, the season opener in Australia could not have gone much better for the likeable Button. Qualifying on the front row, just behind team mate Hamilton, Jenson went on to take the first victory of the season on a track where he'd won two of the previous three races. He again started on the front row a week later as McLaren demonstrated their early season pace, but fell back during the incident packed race to finish outside the points in 14th. Had it not been for being stuck behind slower cars whilst battling for 2nd place, Jenson could well have challenged Nico Rosberg for the victory at the third round of the season in China; instead he had to settle for a strong 2nd. No one could begrudge the German his first win in Formula 1 though after what was a supremely impressive all round weekend. 43 points from the opening 3 rounds is a very handsome total to have; and one that saw Jenson take up second place in the drivers standings behind team mate Hamilton.

That was really as good as it got for Jenson for a long ol' while. A run of just 7 points in 6 races is simply just something a title challenge can't afford to let happen. Yes, at times the car wasn't as competitive as it had been in the opening three rounds as the likes of Red Bull and Lotus really began to understand their cars; but still. Averaging just over 1 point over 6 races is just not good enough; something both he and the team had stated. To compound this run of poor performances and noticeable lack of speed, Lewis was still turning in some brilliant performances. The weekend he had at Canada, from Friday to Sunday, was virtually faultless. On the same day that Lewis was taking his first win of the season, Jenson crossed the line down in 16th. Let's not forget, this was the same race track at which Jenson took that stunning and remarkable victory just 12 months ago, coming from last to first. Although he took points at both the European and British GP's, neither were ones to particularly remember for Jenson, taking home just 5 points.

Something seem to click when Jenson and McLaren arrived at Hockenheim ahead of the German Grand Prix. Although Jenson didn't set a fast time on low fuel in P3 just before qualifying, he still went out there when it mattered and delivered a time good enough for 7th. Now a 7th place may not sound spectacular; but what Jenson had managed to achieve was to out qualify Lewis Hamilton for the first time (on pace, after Hamilton's demotion in Spain) this season. He'd clearly found a set up he liked and was brimmed full of confidence after his first good Saturday for many a weekend. He showed strong pace throughout the race, fighting for the race lead with Alonso and Vettel. He eventually came home in 2nd place after Vettel had been given a 20-second penalty for overtaking the Brit whilst off the track. The 18 points for finishing on the second step of the podium are more than double of that he'd achieved in the 7 previous races; but that wasn't the most important factor. He finally had pace again. He and the car looked a lot happier out on track, and the delight on his face after the race was pleasing for all British fans to see.

A poor strategy call in Hungary ultimately cost Jenson what could have been a top 5 finish around the tight and twisty circuit just outside of Bucharest; something which he clearly wasn't happy about during and after the race. Still, it was a second consecutive strong weekend for a man who'd had an extremely testing season. This up-turn in pace can only have helped both Jenson and the team heading into the five week summer break.

That increase in speed and confidence looks like it has worked wonders for both parties. With the drivers and teams arriving at Spa for this, the 12th round of the season, thinking that we'd finally see a Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen pole and victory. Jenson though clearly didn't feel the same way; and come qualifying absolutely blitzed the rest of the field. He set not only one, not even two, but three laps that were quicker than anyone else could manage throughout the whole of the qualifying session. Who'd have thought that we'd have a front row of Jenson Button and Kamui Kobayashi for this afternoon's race?

In previous seasons it has been Jenson's unrivalled ability to manage his tyres, both in terms of wear and performance, that has seen him be so successful. What it seems with these new Pirelli tyres is that there's less of an instant drop off and that managing them is not necessarily as important as it once was. It's now about being on the right tyre at the right time as opposed to making your tyres last as long as you possibly can. We've seen on numerous occasions that trying to pit fewer times than others leaves you vulnerable at the end of a race (see Valencia). Saying that it can work, as proven by Grosjean and Perez in Canada who went nearly 50 laps on their tyres and managed to both finish on the podium. Tyre preservation is still important, but not as key as it once was and as a result has definitely seen Jenson lose some of the advantage that he previously had on virtually the whole of the field.

This is the first time since 2009, and consequently for McLaren, that Jenson Button has started a race from pole position. For a driver that has won numerous races and been on the podium some 20+ times since 2009, that is a remarkable statistic. It was a failure to qualify at the very front in the 2009 season that nearly allowed others back into it towards the end of the season. So does his dominant performance in yesterdays dry qualifying session show that Jenson has finally found that sweet spot? Can he now make the Pirelli's work for that one hot lap? Obviously he did yesterday, but it's too early to say whether or not he's found the cure. He'll need a few more strong qualifying performances over the next few rounds to prove that, but yesterday was an extremely pleasing and encouraging sight for all concerned; the team, the fans and Jenson himself.

As perfect as qualifying was for Jenson; the race even more perfect (if that's possible). Aided by both the horrific first corner crash and Nico Hulkenberg being able to pass Kimi Raikkonen after the restart; Jenson was able to just drive his own race. Thankfully all involved in the horror crash appear fine and were seen back on camera within minutes of getting back to the pits. It just goes to show how dangerous, and at the same time safe, motorsport is. We've seen on several occasions this season that if you're able to make a break at the front and drive without pressure from other cars, then you're in a much better position when it comes to strategy and tyre life/management. As already stated this is something Jenson is notoriously excellent at and was able to fully exploit it throughout today's race. The tyres seem to fade and lose grip quickly when running directly behind another car, something the likes of Webber and Raikkonen experienced today in particular.

Today though belongs to Jenson. Given the fact that title challengers Alonso and Hamilton didn't finish; and with Webber only finishing 6th, does it give Jenson a glimmer of hope when it comes to the championship? Maybe. But a little glimmer is all it is. Jenson now has nothing to lose and, as he has already stated, will be going as hard and fast as he can in every race from here on in. Realistically he can't win the title, given how many points he is behind and how many other top quality drivers are up there and ahead of him. The way he drove today though will give him, the team and team mate Hamilton hope that between now and the end of the season that we'll be seeing more McLaren victories. Jenson started the season with his shirt fully buttoned up. He then went through a poor run, undoing most of the buttons on this metaphorical shirt. But ever since Germany, the 'buttons' appear to be being done back up again (hopefully that makes some kind of sense). Is JB back? Yes, JB is back and back in an emphatic way.

Image source:Jenson Button wins at Spa

Top Drivers

 
Driver Points
Hamilton 252
Rosberg 211
Vettel 203
Raikkonen 107
Bottas 101
Massa 97
 

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