Friday, August 12, 2011

Jenson Button produces Hungarian masterclass

On Saturday evening in Hungary, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso were two of the luminaries who joined Jenson Button to celebrate the occasion of his 200th grand prix. Twenty-four hours later they stood either side of the McLaren driver as he celebrated another superb win in the tricky wet-dry conditions in which he excels.

Every one of Button's four wins since he joined McLaren at the start of last season has come in wet-dry races, conditions which reward the deftness of touch and exquisite feel for grip levels that the 31-year-old has displayed from the very beginning of his Formula 1 career.

"I'm always pretty lucky in these conditions," Button said in the news conference after the race, but it has absolutely nothing to do with good fortune. It is about skill and judgement.

It was a drive as perfect as the symmetry that saw him take his second win of the year at his 200th grand prix and at the same track where five years ago he finally took his first victory at the 113th attempt, also in mixed conditions.

Button has something of a sixth sense, a way of feeling the limits of what is possible in conditions where the track is damp but not soaking wet, that goes beyond that of nearly all his rivals, and he demonstrated it vividly again at the Hungaroring on Sunday.

Perhaps only Button's team-mate Lewis Hamilton has the same deftness and certainty of touch in rainy conditions - the younger McLaren man also has a clutch of brilliant wet wins on his CV. But even he was caught out by the tricky combination of a low-grip track surface and a sprinkling of mid-race rain.

It was not, though, Hamilton's lap 47 spin at the chicane that lost him the race, nor the decision five laps later, while disputing the lead with Button, to stop for intermediate tyres. By then, the writing was already on the wall.

No, the critical moment for Hamilton was his third stop on lap 40.

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McLaren fitted another set of the super-soft tyres to Hamilton's car, while Red Bull - whose cars stopped on the laps immediately before and after him - fitted the harder prime tyre, the idea being to run it for the final 30 laps of the race. Button, who stopped two laps after Hamilton, did the same.

Of the front-runners, only Alonso did the same as Hamilton - and the Ferrari driver needed to gamble to try to clear the Red Bull of Mark Webber, which had been holding him up for much of the race.

Once that choice was made, Hamilton's only hope of winning was to use what should have been the extra grip of the softer tyre to quickly pull out enough of a lead to make the additional pit stop he was going to need, as the super-softs were never going to get him to the end of the race.

Instead, with rain starting to fall, Button started closing at about a second a lap. Who knows, perhaps that was what prompted Hamilton's spin. Perhaps, feeling the race slipping away, he was pushing just that little bit too hard.

The incident led to a diverting - and thoroughly entertaining - couple of laps as the two McLaren team-mates passed and re-passed each other, showing fantastic judgement and respect as they raced wheel to wheel for the lead.

But a diversion was all it was.

Up in the stewards room, they were about to hand Hamilton a drive-through penalty for forcing Force India driver Paul di Resta - producing yet another impressive drive - to take avoiding action as the McLaren spin-turned back into the race.

Meanwhile, out on the track, Hamilton, struggling with a radio problem that meant he could hear the team but they could not hear him, was called in to change to intermediate tyres, and he obeyed. Right behind him, Button got the same call, he revealed on the BBC post-race forum on the red button, but ignored it.

On that decision hung the victory. Had Button come in, he would have needed to stop again for dry tyres - as did Hamilton and Webber, who also changed to intermediates during the shower - and Vettel would have won the race.

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As it was, the German took second place with a calm, mature, understated but effective drive that has made his grip on the championship even more vice-like than it already was.

Vettel has not won for three races now, and there is no doubt that Red Bull are slightly on the back foot, but still he left Hungary with a bigger championship lead than he had when he arrived.

Vettel is now 85 points ahead of second-placed Webber rather than 77, with Hamilton a further three points back, Alonso one behind the Englishman and Button 100 points, four clear wins, adrift in fifth.

Nevertheless, the man who has scored the most points in the last four races is Alonso, even if Vettel's impressive consistency means he has notched up only three points fewer despite not winning since Valencia at the end of June.

The Ferrari was genuinely fast again in Hungary, and Alonso had the pace to contest the lead battle had not a difficult opening lap led to a messy first half of the race stuck behind other cars.

Alonso did not help himself - he had to pass both Mercedes drivers twice because he made mistakes after overtaking them the first time and let them back in front. He then spent the second stint with Webber blocking his progress, before his tyre gamble got him some free air.

Had it not been for Webber's mistake in fitting intermediates and Hamilton's penalty, that strategy call would not have paid off, and Alonso would have ended the race still stuck down in fifth.

Nevertheless, Alonso, like the McLaren drivers, has sensed a shift in the balance of power and that is something all the protagonists will be pondering in the three-week summer break before the Belgian Grand Prix.

"The second part of the championship should be good for us," Alonso said. "Spa, with medium- and high-speed corners, should suit the team, and then Monza is our home race."

Red Bull, it is clear, are vulnerable in the races, and wins are there for the taking. But unless some kind of disaster befalls Vettel - or all his rivals start finishing ahead of him all the time, rather than just the odd one or two - the championship is already gone.

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Paul Hawkins Mike Hawthorn Boy Hayje Willi Heeks Nick Heidfeld Theo Helfrich Mack Hellings

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