OCTOBER 12, 2010
Was Button McLaren's Suzuka sacrificial lamb?
On Sunday night at Suzuka, Red Bull's Christian Horner admitted he'd been a little bit suspicious of McLaren's Japanese GP approach.
"We were a bit concerned by Jenson's race strategy," he admitted. "We knew we would come out behind Jenson after the pit stops and then he started to back everybody up towards Hamilton. It was like being in a McLaren sandwich. But then it looked like Hamilton developed a problem and they aborted that strategy for Jenson. It looked a little bit like he was a sacrificial lamb. I don't know. It just seemed strange..."
Horner's suspicions make sense. Given the pace of the Red Bulls, half a second quicker than anything through Suzuka's flat-out sector one sweepers, McLaren had little to lose by adopting a different approach. Hamilton's five place grid penalty for a gearbox change limited what they could do with Lewis, so a 'gamble' with Button it was.
When the decision was taken that Button would qualify on Bridgestone's hard compound tyre, the intention would not have been to use Jenson as a 'blocker.' The thinking would have been that with all the rain on Saturday, the track surface would still have been very 'green' at the start, and therefore the rest of the top 10, who all qualified on the soft 'option' tyre, would probably have to pit early.
There was a chance that even the Red Bull pace might not be enough to clear some of those who started further back on the prime tyre and would run a much longer first stint. Jenson, therefore, could lead the race and be able to run uninterrupted in clean air, which could have opened up interesting possibilities.
Things looked good when Button was able to qualify within two hundredths of Alonso despite using the harder tyre for a three lap qualifying run. And things looked even better when Robert Kubica retired from the race early on.
But, track temperature had risen significantly which allowed the surface to rubber in more quickly, which meant that the front-runners on their option tyres were not in as much trouble. Instead of having to make their pit stops after 10-12 laps, as some had predicted, Hamilton, who was the first of the leading group to pit, went 22 laps into the 53 lap race.
It meant two things. First, the Red Bulls were able to pull out a big enough lead to get their pit stops done without losing significant track position. And, Button did not run in clean air until later than expected. In fact, he was holding up Hamilton, whose softer tyres were not degrading.
At this stage, Button's strategy clearly wasn't going to work. The best thing for Jenson would have been for the team to pit him, possibly even a lap before Lewis, and put him on the option tyres. With the track rubbered in, the option tyre would have been capable of a 30 lap stint. But instead, they left Jenson out for another 16 laps, as far as lap 38.
It was easy enough to make a direct comparison of tyre performance. From Hamilton's stop on lap 22 for the next 15 laps, Button was around a second per lap slower than his team mate. So, if McLaren wasn't then planning to use Jenson to back everyone into Hamilton, what were they doing?
Unfortunately in terms of race excitement we didn't get to see the scenario play out.
On lap 38 Hamilton lost the use of third gear to a broken dog ring and his lap time dropped off by 2s. It was on that very same lap that McLaren called Button in. How much longer they would have left him out if Lewis hadn't had his problem, we will never know.
By that stage the team knew that Button was going to finish fifth anyway (without Hamilton having his problem) and the likely outcome was that within a few laps Button, Vettel, Webber, Alonso and Hamilton would have been running in a five-car train. Things could have been very interesting and uncomfortable for the Red Bulls and Fernando in the final laps, with Button making his tyre stop right at the end. The last man you'd want on your tail in such circumstances, is Lewis Hamilton. And it would not have been team orders, but team strategy!
Because the situation never arose, McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh was able to deny that the team's intention was to use Button as a 'blocker' in those final laps. "Others might have, but it's not the way we go motor racing," he said.
It may not have been the intention when they went to the grid but it sure looks as if it developed that way. If it wasn't the case, Button's strategy is pretty tough to explain.