One of the most stark stories of recent weeks has been the decline in form of Jenson Button, who won the first race of the season but has now fallen to eighth in the driver’s standings, 43 points adrift of championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
With seven different race winners and no-one running away with the championship, it’s by no means a disaster. But the McLaren driver knows he needs to get on top of his set up issues and get back onto the podium as soon as possible to keep himself in contention.
The problem, as always in F1, is not one thing. Button has struggled recently with this generation of Pirelli tyres to get heat into the front tyres, especially for qualifying. He has lost the “feeling”. McLaren runs its car very stiff at the front for aerodynamic reasons. Button has tried on several occasions using different brake materials, partly to generate more temperature from inside the wheel, as he did again in Montreal. But in trying to solve this front grip issue, his set up has moved away from the planted rear end of the car which his driving style requires.
Last year’s cars, with their exhaust blown diffusers, generated huge amounts of rear end downforce which gave Button the stable rear end he needs. This year’s F1 cars, without the EBD, move around a lot at the back, which Hamilton can live with but Button can’t. The McLaren seemed in winter testing and in the opening races to be reasonably strong at the rear relative to the others in this area, certainly enough for Button to feel good with it in February and March. But perhaps the development of the car since then has taken it away from what works for him. In Montreal he was particularly unlucky that some new directions he was trying out, including in rear suspension didn’t get the long run testing they needed on Friday as he lost most of the day with a drawn-out oil leak and gearbox change saga. So his problem with heavy tyre usage didn’t really show itself until race day, where he suffered high degradation.
“I haven’t got a clue what to do at the moment and every time we have good ideas we don’t seem to make any progress,” he said after the race. “I love driving an F1 car so I am confident every time I jump in and then after two laps there is no grip anywhere. Obviously the car with a certain set-up is very quick but what I was driving was not a winning car.
“It’s been the same for the last couple of races and I don’t know why because it is normally something I am pretty good at. I’m driving round 1.5 seconds slower than the leaders and one is my team-mate but I can’t go any quicker.”
Button’s post Canada debrief will have analysed why he had the problems with tyre degradation and will then look at solutions for Valencia which he can then try out in McLaren’s high-tech simulator at Woking before travelling out to Spain.
Button confirmed that the start point for this effort will be to work from Lewis Hamilton’s set up and then evolve from there, “The fist thing you do is set the car up like the other one and that’s how we’ll do it initially,” he said. “I won’t be as quick as him on those settings but then we can work from there and find a set up that works for me.”
It’s still early days in the championship, with 13 races still to go. A win or podium would put him right back into the hunt. He certainly can’t afford to languish in the doldrums for long.