I was fascinated by the way Jenson Button attacked the Japanese Grand Prix, with his strategy of running the hard tyre in qualifying and the first part of the race. It didn’t work for him and he has pretty much dropped out of contention for the title as a result.
Actually “attacked” is the wrong word, because if anything this strategy showed timidity – perhaps even a lack of confidence. For a championship contender up against some fierce competitors, with four races to go, it seemed an odd thing to do. Surely Jenson should have gone out there on the attack, looking to get a podium and maybe even have a go at the Red Bulls at the start.
McLaren are a team who go to every race to win, that is their stated aim. But at the same time they often talk themselves down. If you look closely, they often do their predictions for a race based on their perceived weakness. Hamilton often defies this because he is so aggressive and such a competitor. Inevitably in pushing so hard, he sometimes makes mistakes.
Button is playing a percentage game and in my view, missing a trick.
In Japan McLaren were on the back foot anyway because – not for the the first time this year – the updates they had brought didn’t do what they’d hoped and so they took them off for qualifying. They did not believe they could beat the Red Bulls.
Nevertheless, the McLaren was fast enough to get the second row of the grid. You can see that from the Q2 times, where Button was faster than both Alonso and Kubica.
Hamilton is always a tenth or two faster than Button at Suzuka, but Button knew his team mate wouldn’t be a factor, as he had to take a five place grid penalty for a gearbox change.
If you analyse Button’s Q3 performance, he did a lap on the hard tyre that was only 2/10ths slower than Hamilton’s. The hard is at least that much slower than the soft, so he actually did a brilliant lap.
So it’s accurate to say – and McLaren accept this – that on soft tyres, Jenson would have qualified third. If he had done that, he should have had the chance to finish at least third. But he would also have had the chance to jump Webber at the start, as Kubica did, especially given Red Bull’s dodgy start record. Although the Red Bull was faster, he may have been able to frustrate Webber and hold second to claim 18 points. It’s unlikely, but Kubica managed to get ahead of Webber from P3 on the grid, so you never know. More likely he would have started and finished third.
And he had the idea that the soft tyre would grain quickly on a green track, after all that rain. So if you were McLaren you might reason that by taking the hard tyre, you would be able to run longer than your rivals and if they were force to pit early due to graining they might come out behind drivers like Liuzzi likes to start on the hard tyre and get held up. .
But no-one has made significant gains this season, starting in the top half of the grid on hard tyres. At best you end up where you would have been anyway on softs.
So there were too many ifs and buts to this strategy. At the end of the day, who did he think he was racing, by doing this? Alonso, Kubica..Hamilton? All people who would have been behind him anyway if he’d gone for it on softs.
Certainly going this route he was not fighting the Red Bulls nor Alonso, given that he had chosen a slower tyre and had given Alonso track position by giving up the vital few tenths the soft gives you in qualifying.
Once the race got underway, the drivers on soft pitted around lap 22-26 and Button took the lead. But his lap times inevitably were not strong enough to build a gap over the drivers who were now on new tyres. Button turned a series of ‘lame duck’ laps, in which Vettel, Webber, Alonso and Hamilton all gained on him. When he pitted on lap 35 Hamilton took his fourth place, having started the race in eighth place.
He questioned the decision to leave him out so long, but the maximum gap he ever held over Hamilton was at the start of that stint and was just 17 seconds, which wasn’t enough to pit and keep his position. There was a big gap behind Hamilton and Button was always going to slot into it, whenever he pitted.
So that’s it really. Button went from being 25 points off the championship lead, to being 31 points off and pretty much out of it.
Had he attacked on softs, jumped Webber at the start and held it he would be just 22 behind and still in it. And if he hadn’t managed that, he would have had a great chance to finish third and would now be 28 behind.
Eddie Irvine criticises Button for just driving around all season to get a result and not being adventurous or aggressive enough. I have huge respect for Jenson, for his ability to think through races, and he showed some adventure earlier this year.
I’m not having a go at him here. Merely saying that it would have been great if he’d really gone for it in Japan.