On Saturday afternoon I asked Jenson Button for his thoughts on the prospects for a rain affected race in Montreal, given that we'd has so little wet running there in recent years.
"It's very low grip here so I really don't know how it will be," he said. "If it's wet, we'll make the best of it. We're normally good at making decisions when it comes to wet/dry races..."
The following day everything played into his hands. Not for the first time in his career, Button made the right calls in a wet race, and more importantly, showed that he understood how to play the long game. In these races things can go awry very quickly, but just as easily, things can swing back in your favour. But to take advantage, you need to still be on the track.
The Montreal numbers are extraordinary. Quite apart from his winning average speed of 46mph, Button pushed the boundaries by making six visits to the pits, including a drive-through and two slow crawls back to replace punctured tyres.
At one stage he'd made three pitstops - putting on intermediates and taking them off again, plus the drive through - when many of those ahead hadn't stopped at all.
In total he spent 2m21s of his race in the pitlane, compared with the 47s of fifth place finisher Vitaly Petrov, who made it home with just two stops. He survived contact with Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa. One of his laps, returning to the pits after the clash with the Ferrari, stretched out to 3m05s. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, from lap 37 to lap 40, he was 21st and last. And yet somehow, he won the race...
"It's too much to take in," admitted McLaren engineering boss Paddy Lowe as the celebrations kicked off. "I still can't compute that we won that race really, from the back! In fact worse than at the back, we were so far at the back that they were about to pull safety car in and we still hadn't caught up with the train. So we were worse than last..."
The safety car leads at the start © sutton-images.com
"I think the lesson is you don't give up until the last second of the race!," said Martin Whitmarsh. "You just keep pushing. Jenson with two incidents, two punctures, the drive through... We just kept focus, and just finding a way through, trying to make the right calls for pitstops to get onto the right tyres at the right time. I think we got that just about right, and we made the best of it as a team. But ultimately Jenson was the guy who had to really drive decisively.
"It was a rollercoaster of a race, all in all. But I think during the race you've got to remain focussed on what's possible in front of you. Inevitably immediately after a race you get asked to analyse what may have been, etc, often we're not in good shape to do that. We had a big stoppage, so we could reflect on what happened at the beginning."
So here then it was really happened to Jenson and McLaren on Sunday...
Start: Safety car, wet tyres
Although the rain had stopped before the start there was still a lot of potential for spray, and four laps of safety car running allowed the drivers to drain a bit of the water before the field was released.
At the start proper Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber tangled in front of Button, who gained a spot from the Aussie and lost one to Schumacher, ending the first racing lap in seventh. On the next lap he gained another place when Lewis ran wide. Hamilton was keen to make amends, and when his team mate got the final chicane slightly wrong at the end of lap seven, Lewis made his ambitious move up the inside. The subsequent contact could have had catastrophic results, and yet somehow both men were able to continue in the right direction.
We've seen them race to wheel several times in the past - notably in Turkey last year - without any dramas. This time, it didn't work out, Jenson insisting he could only see a flash of orange in his mirrors, thinking that it was his own rear wing.
Martin Whitmarsh said: "Both drivers understand what happened, both drivers accept that Jenson didn't seek to cause that, nor did Lewis. Lewis was trying to overtake. Jenson didn't see him on the inside there, and it happened. I think Lewis has accepted that. Very easy for drivers to get irrational and start blaming team mates and all those things, but I think the spirit in the team is sufficiently strong, the spirit between the drivers is robust enough that it can withstand that sort of incident, which is remarkable really."
Paddy Lowe: "As far as I know Lewis has no issue with what happened, which is a demonstration of the respect they have for each other. Lewis will know that whatever happened was an accident. I think in those conditions seeing what's going on behind you is very difficult, and I don't think he knew Lewis was there."
Hamilton's right rear wheel rim was shattered and the tyre was flopping loose, and the team told him to park the car - and had they not done so, they could have been ordered to by the FIA. Alighting from the car Lewis made a point of looking over the front and rear suspension - he even gave it a kick! - and he was clearly frustrated at being told to park what he certainly thought was a repairable car. Bear in mind that he created his own safety car period, and had he not stopped, the trip back to the pits would probably have been under green, unless the FIA had concerns about debris.
When the car came back, after a crazy ride on the back of a tow truck, it did have some damage.
"By the time it got back here it was damaged, but in fairness I think some of that damage could have been and probably was through how it got carried back, in a fairly unconventional manner," said Whitmarsh. "It was a big impact. Had he managed to get back, and bear in mind the rim was completely shattered, then that would have fallen off somewhere, which could have been dangerous.
"It probably would have ended up damaging the floor, and even if it hadn't, and he had to have a front wing change as well, he would have been one lap down. You can debate should we have battled on? But we are responsible for the safety of the drivers, we've got to take a responsible decision, that was a bit of a knee jerk reaction for safety."
Button, meanwhile, had a left rear puncture, and had to crawl back to the pits for a replacement.
Stop 1: Lap 8, Puncture, Wets to Inters. Pos: 14
In an attempt to salvage opportunity from disaster, McLaren put Button onto inters. The stop demonstrated how pitting under the safety car in Montreal is less costly than elsewhere, for while he crossed the start/finish line at the end of the pitlane in 14th, by the time he'd charged out into the pack at the first corner complex, he blended into 12th place, behind Pastor Maldonado. The safety car made the tyre choice a little less risky in that there were four laps of slow running, which helped the track to dry further.
Button pits for repairs © sutton-images.com
Unfortunately, during the safety car period Button had exceeded the speed limit, and that earned a drive-though.
Paddy Lowe: "Jenson got a drive-through for not meeting the safety car timing. He was a little bit too quick in one sector. In trying to make up the time he overcooked it."
He couldn't take the drive through under the safety car, and came in at the first opportunity after the green.
Stop 2: Lap 13: Drive-Through Penalty. Pos: 15
After serving his drive-through Button was 15th crossing the line at the pit exit, and by the end of the lap he had gained a place from Buemi. The lap after that he passed Maldonado and Sutil, and gained a further spot when Barrichello pitted.
There was a brief window when inters looked like an inspired choice and Button's pace encouraged others to stop, including Alonso and both Mercedes drivers. But even as those guys were pitting, the rain was coming down again.
During this sequence Button rose as high as eighth on lap 18 - but his race was about to go wrong, and he wouldn't reach such dizzy heights again until lap 50.
Paddy Lowe: "He was the first car to go for inters. A few others then followed suit. It proved to be a bad plan, and we had to go back onto the wets..."
As the rain intensified those on inters knew they were in serious trouble, and began to change back to wets. Button came on lap 19 just as the conditions caused the safety car to be dispatched again.
Stop 3: Lap 19, Inters to Wets. Pos: 11
Button dropped three places to 11th as he joined the safety car queue, soon gaining another one when Schumacher pitted for wets. After a few more fruitless laps, with the rain really coming down, the red flag came out. The frustrating for Button was that had he known a red flag was coming he could have stayed out on the inters and changed on the grid. So once again that rule didn't work in his favour...
Red Flag: Lap 24, Wets to Wets on grid. Pos: 10
During the break Button found time for a discussion with Hamilton, and clearing the air could only have been good for his state of mind.
Martin Whitmarsh: "The good thing is I spoke to both of them, we had the opportunity during the stoppage. There's no issue between the drivers. Lewis was going for it, Jenson didn't know he was there. Lewis totally accepts that, he understands that, it's one of those things that happens."
The saftey car was on track five times © sutton-images.com
Meanwhile, the team had plenty of time to question the wisdom of the early switch to inters - and the bad luck of going back to wets just as the safety car came out.
Paddy Lowe: "There were plenty of regrets while we sat and watched during the race suspension! We were thinking, why did we do that? There was a safety car, we put the wets back on, and then they red flagged it. So actually we ended up in P10 and we could have been P6 and got a free tyre change."
Martin Whitmarsh: "What you do is think how do we make the best of this? You've got to try to the very last second of a motor race, you never know what's going to happen, and we proved that today. It's let's be focussed, and just concentrate. You can do a lot of examination and soul searching of what happened, what might have happened, what you should have done before. But actually you've got to focus on the fact that there's a race on here, we've stopped for a long time and we had an hour and 14 minutes left, and we knew a lot could happen, and of course it certainly did."
Button had a new set of wets for the resumption - others stuck with a used set. After nine laps behind the safety car the field was finally released at the end of lap 34. At the restart Button got ahead of Pedro de la Rosa at the last chicane, who brushed the McLaren and lost his front wing. Button escaped without damage.
Several cars at the tail of the field went straight into the pits for inters at the restart, and Button came in at the end of the first racing lap, as did Heidfeld and di Resta up ahead.
Stop 4: Lap 35, Wets to Inters. Pos: 15
The team refitted the scrubbed intermediates that Button had used earlier in the race. The stop dropped him down to 15th, but with others pouring into the pits he soon bounced back to 11th. Fernando Alonso had pitted a lap later, and came out just in front. Button's tyres were up to temperature and he was already dialled in, so he immediately took a run at the Ferrari - contact was made, and the Spaniard spun off.
Martin Whitmarsh: "Jenson was up on the inside there. Fernando may not have seen him, but I think he probably knew. But if you turn in and don't give someone the space on the inside, you're going to have an accident."
Stop 5: Lap 37, Puncture, Inters to Inters: Pos 21
Once again Button continued, albeit with a puncture, but he had another long run back to the pits, where he collected a set of fresh intermediates. With the Ferrari stranded on the kerbs the safety car emerged again, so that limited the damage.
Button was now not only 21st, he was literally last. He also had to catch the back of the safety car queue, something he didn't quite manage - when the green flag flew at the end of lap 40, he crossed the line still some 2.4s shy of Liuzzi's HRT, instead of being on his tail.
Paddy Lowe: "Jenson came out in last place. But they decided to pull the safety car in when he hadn't yet formed up. Probably the rationale for that is when somebody's had a pitstop, they ignore them, and don't give them that chance to catch up. So he was having to drive absolutely flat out to try and catch up with the train, and he was still a few seconds off when the race went green."
On the plus side he'd run a couple of very fast laps catching up, so he was in the groove at the restart, and was soon weaving through the backmarkers. He soon passed Liuzzi and then over the next few laps took Karthikeyan, Trulli, D'Ambrosio, Glock, de la Rosa and Buemi. Stops for di Resta and Sutil gifted him a couple more places, leaving him in 12th by lap 45. After holding station for a while on lap 49 he passed both Maldonado and Alguersuari.
Now the window for slicks was beginning to open. Webber and Barrichello were the first of the cars ahead of Button to stop, coming in on lap 50. McLaren now called Button in.
Stop 6: Lap 51, Inters to Slicks. Pos 10
Button puts on slicks © sutton-images.com
The team had already earmarked lap 51, and encouraged by Webber's quick sector times, Button was duly called in, slipping briefly from eighth back to 10th. He only had used super softs left, while of the frontrunners only Schumacher had the advantage of a new set.
Paddy Lowe: "We could have gone a lap earlier, like Webber did. Webber picked the right lap, and we were kicking ourselves at the time for not doing that. We had planned the lap we actually did, and Webber jumped the gun on what we thought was quite an aggressive early move, and he went every more aggressive than what we'd be thinking.
" We only had to watch and immediately we saw he was setting green sector times. That confirmed our plan to bring Jenson in. What was surprising was that no one else came in at that point. Vettel left it another two laps, and that was curious."
As others stopped Button soon began to climb the order again, helped by the fact that on slicks, he suddenly seemed to find an extra gear that no one else had. As we've seen in the past, if you are really on it and get the tyres into the optimum working window, you can gain huge chunks of time on a still cold and damp track, and go even faster.
Paddy Lowe: "For whatever reason, our car worked well in those conditions. I don't know the answer - I certainly don't know it now, and we may never know it, and our competitors are probably wondering the same. For most of the time on the slick tyres we were two seconds a lap quicker than everyone in the field, which must have given Red Bull a bit of a shock."
Everyone else stopped within a couple of laps of Button, but they were too late - he had charged up to fifth. In other words over the course of the mass switch to dries he had gained five places, getting ahead of Barrichello, Rosberg, Petrov, Heidfeld and Massa (who crashed).
Kobayashi was struggling on slicks, and Button soon dispatched him. Thus as of lap 55 the order looked like this:
2. Schumacher: -8.730s
3. Webber: - 9.084s
4. Button: - 15.413s
So, with 15 laps to go Button was 15 seconds behind the leader - and on that lap 55 he had taken an astonishing four seconds out of Vettel, who was still finding his feet on slicks. The next lap Button sliced off another two seconds off Vettel, while also catching the Schumacher/Webber battle. This was getting interesting...
Then we had another safety car interlude triggered by Heidfeld's crash - although he was on schedule to catch Vettel it made Button's life even easier, as all those gaps shrunk to nothing, although he had D'Ambrosio's lapped Virgin between himself and Webber.
Paddy Lowe: "In the end the shame I guess for Sebastian was that there kept being these safety cars, which would erode his advantage. He kept building up these massive leads, which kept being knocked back."
After three laps of yellow the field was released at the end of lap 60, exactly 10 to go. Button blasted past the Virgin and for three laps sat on the tail of Webber's Red Bull, gaining a DRS boost as he did so.
Button chases Vettel © sutton-images.com
At the end of lap 64 Webber got it wrong at the last corner, and Button sliced past on the exit. Soon glued to Schumacher's tail, he used DRS to shoot past at the end of lap 65. Despite having a pass at either end of it, on that lap he set an astonishing fastest lap of 1m18.866s - prior to that nobody in the race, even Button, had even got into 1m19s bracket!
Martin Whitmarsh: "I think the car was obviously pretty good in the conditions, but again I don't want to take anything from Button. I think he found that time. In those conditions a driver has to believe what he's doing, and has to be confident. He did a fantastic job. I think if you're in that zone you get the tyres at the right temperature. It's a virtuous circle. He was driving just fantastically, he was going to overtake anyone that was in his way."
The irony was that before the race all the talk was of McLaren having too much downforce, and a car that would be better in the wet than the dry.
Paddy Lowe: "I think there's a danger of overplaying all of that. It's not as if we were running a Monaco wing setting and everyone else was on a Monza wing setting. That's not going to explain two seconds a lap, is it?"
With five laps to go, he was 3.1s behind Vettel. And so the gap came down, to 1.6s, 1,3s, 1.1s, despite Seb improving his pace dramatically. At the start of the last lap, the margin was just 0.9s.
Martin Whitmarsh: "He popped through the field and we knew he had to put pressure on Sebastian. Sebastian's been driving great this year, he really hasn't made mistakes, but he hasn't been under so much pressure. You could see for three or four laps beforehand he was right on the ragged edge, and he was pushing very hard to try and keep the gap to Jenson."
We'll never know what Button could have done with DRS on the run to the final chicane on the last lap, but in the end, he didn't need it. Under the most extreme pressure, Vettel finally cracked, sliding wide at Turn Five, and ceding the lead. Button's best lap, was 0.261s quicker than Vettel's, both times set on the penultimate lap. Button's time was an amazing 2.1s faster than the third best lap, achieved by Vitaly Petrov...
Button would be the first to admit that luck rode with him, just is it had worked against him in Monaco, when the red flag gave Vettel a helping hand.
Martin Whitmarsh: "You've got to give primary credit to Jenson, he went out and did the job in a car that was OK, but you've got to give him the credit for that, he found that time, he was driving 2-4 seconds quicker than anyone else, he put the pressure on Sebastian, Sebastian's done a great job this year, but he made a mistake. And that's what happens when you put the pressure on. It was an incredible job by Jenson."
Paddy Lowe: "It's great. The real shame is that it all went wrong on Lewis's side, but nice to have a few things go our way on at least one car. You could sense that the entire spectator throng just wanted a different winner than Sebastian. All credit to the guy, but we're a bit bored..."
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