Jenson Button’s victory in the Chinese Grand Prix today, which puts him in the lead in the championship, is one of those results which can change perceptions in Formula 1.
Let’s take a balanced look at this situation. Last year he took a big early lead in the championship in a car with a big technical advantage and then had a patchy second half to the season, holding on for dear life to win the title. Nevertheless I put him as ‘Driver of the Year’ because his peaks were very high and on some of his bad weekends he made some great saves, fighting his way back to score important points.
This season he has pleasantly surprised many in F1, who admired his smoothness and were impressed with some of his performances last season, but still weren’t sure about him.
Meanwhile today’s result will trouble those people who dismiss him as a moderate driver, who lucked into his world championship with an all conquering Brawn car last year.
His win in Melbourne, which like today’s win was based on a crucial tyre choice at a pivotal moment, was dismissed by many as lucky because he was forced to pit because his intermediate tyres were worn out. That early call gave him the platform for the win but from then on he still had to drive most of the race on a single set of tyres.
Today he disproved the theory that luck has anything to do with it; he, Rosberg, Kovalainen and the Renault drivers stayed on slicks in light rain in the early laps, while most of the runners pitted for intermediates. When those started burning out after a few laps, they were all forced to pit again for slicks, opening up a yawning gap between the leading group and the rest. That gap was only closed by a second safety car to clear debris.
There was still plenty of driving for Button to do, once that tyre decision had been made, including passing Rosberg and then keeping the pace up on worn intermediates at the end. He made one mistake, near the end of the race, locking up his wheels and going off the track, after which he also struggled to get the tyres up to temperature, which allowed Hamilton to close up.
“For me, it is my best victory – every one you win becomes your best victory but this was was pretty tough conditions,” he said. “It is not luck we came out on top today. We chose correctly in the conditions. The start was the right call definitely but it was slippery and we knew how quickly the soft tyres would be working.”
Button went to McLaren for three reasons; for a fast car, to test himself against Hamilton, but most important of all, to prove that he didn’t just win the title last year because he had the best car. This last point was one of the key reasons he gave to Brawn when he told them he was leaving and it is one even his harshest critics must concede he is proving so far this season.
Button made a lot of bad decisions in his early career, particularly when choosing which team to drive for and it’s great to see that, late in his career, he has found himself realizing his potential and showing people what he can do, which has not always been easy to see.
Of course we have to take into account that he also has off days, when the car isn’t right for him, he can drift out of the picture. But since he’s had a competitive car, those days are noticeably less frequent.
His confidence is sky high after winning the championship and these wins will only add to that.
“You won’t see many better drives than that,” said McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, who has seen a few in his time. “I can tell you – he was very, very impressive today.”