"Everything went wrong – until I won!"
The 2011 Canadian GP is remembered as one of the most incredible Formula 1 races of recent times, and Jenson Button’s victory for McLaren Formula 1 has earned its place in the history books. Relive the story of that extraordinary race here…
Not for the first time in his career, Jenson made the right calls in a wet race, and, more importantly, showed that he understood how to play the long game.
It’s rare for the lead of a grand prix to change on the last lap, and for the winner of the race to lead only the last lap of a race, but that’s just one of the extraordinary things that happened that day.
Quite apart from his official winning average speed of 46mph, Jenson pushed the boundaries by making six visits to the pits, which included a drive through penalty, and making not just one but two slow crawls back to replace punctured tyres.
At one stage he’d made three pit stops – 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 pit lane, compared with the 47s of fifth place finisher Vitaly Petrov, who made it home with just two stops. He survived contact with McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton, and with both Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa.
One of his laps, returning to the pits after the clash with Alonso’s Ferrari, stretched out to 3m05s. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, from lap 37 to lap 40, he was in 21st and last place.
And yet somehow – miraculously – he took the lead to win on the very last lap.
“Everything went wrong up until I won the race,” Jenson recalled recently. “I crashed with my team-mate, and you never want to do that. And then I crashed with Fernando as well. Puncture, drive through, almost got lapped, was last twice. And you don’t think it’s going your way.
“And then suddenly you see your lap-times compared to the others, the team’s giving you positive vibes, and you’re coming through the field, thinking, ‘This could happen!’. I had six corners to enjoy it, but it was the most nerve-wracking six corners of my life. Everything’s gone wrong, suddenly it’s all gone right, so you’re very tense, and also very emotional, as well.”
“It was probably the most memorable race, but being honest I don’t think it was his best performance,” recalls Jenson’s former Race Engineer Tom Stallard. “Those conditions were perfect for him, and our tyre performance was very strong in those conditions as well. It was a mixed bag I suppose, he made some mistakes but had moments of brilliance.
“So I think as a whole weekend he had better races during his time at McLaren, but in terms of how memorable it was, that was pretty extraordinary.”
So how did Jenson pull off such a remarkable win? Let’s take a look at how that wet afternoon in Canada unfolded, and what impact all those pit-stops had.
Start: Safety car, wet tyres
The 2011 season was Jenson’s second at McLaren alongside Hamilton. He felt much more comfortable with that year’s MP4-26, which – thanks to exhaust blowing – had a very stable rear end. Prior to Canada he had scored consistently well, and he might have won in Monaco but for a red flag allowing everyone to change tyres and cancelling out his tyre advantage, leaving him in third.
McLaren had a disappointing qualifying session in Montreal. Hamilton could not better fifth place, complaining that his seventh gear ratio was too short, while Button was seventh. The team brought a higher downforce spec than some of its rivals, and that compromised straight-line speed.
On Sunday morning the rain came, and, while it had stopped before the start, there was still a lot of potential for spray. 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, Hamilton and Mark Webber tangled in front of Jenson, who gained a spot from the Red Bull driver but lost one to Mercedes man Michael 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.
They made contact on the pit straight, which could have had catastrophic results, yet somehow both men were able to continue in the right direction. Jenson insisted that he could only see a flash of orange in his mirrors, thinking that it was his own rear wing.
But Hamilton’s right-rear wheel-rim was shattered and the tyre was flapping loose, and the team told him to park the car.
“Both drivers understand what happened,” said the then-team principal Martin Whitmarsh after the flag. “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. It’s 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.”
Alighting from his abandoned car Lewis made a point of looking over the front and rear suspension – he even gave it a kick! He was clearly frustrated at being told to park what he thought was a repairable car – it wasn’t. However, he had created his own Safety Car period, and had he not stopped, the trip back to the pits would probably have been under green, and that would have been costly.
Button meanwhile had a left-rear puncture, and he had to crawl back to the pits for a replacement, and his first stop of a remarkable afternoon.
Stop 1: Lap 8, Puncture, Wets to Inters. Pos: 14
In an attempt to salvage opportunity from disaster, McLaren put Jenson onto Intermediates. The stop demonstrated how pitting under the Safety Car in Montreal is usually less costly than elsewhere, for while he crossed the start/finish line at the end of the pit-lane in 14th, by the time he’d charged out into the pack at the first corner complex, he blended into 12th place!
The Safety Car made a bold tyre choice a little less risky by running for four laps, which further helped the track to dry out.
Unfortunately during the Safety Car period Jenson exceeded the speed limit, and that earned a drive-though penalty. He couldn’t take it under the Safety Car, and thus he came in at the first opportunity after the green.
Stop 2: Lap 13: Drive Through Penalty. Pos: 15
After serving his drive-through, Jenson was 15th crossing the line at the pit exit, and by the end of the lap he had gained a place from Sebastien Buemi. The lap after that, he passed Maldonado and Adrian Sutil, and gained a further spot when Rubens Barrichello pitted.
There was a brief window when inters looked like an inspired choice; Jenson’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 Jenson 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.
“He was the first car to go for Inters,” said Paddy Lowe, the team’s Technical Director at the time. “A few others then followed suit. It proved to be a bad plan, and we had to go back onto the Full Wets…”
As the rain intensified those on Inters knew they were in serious trouble, and began to change back to Wets. Jenson came in on lap 19, just as the conditions caused the Safety Car to be dispatched again.
Stop 3: Lap 19, Inters to Wets. Pos: 11
Jenson 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 frustration for Jenson was that had he known a red flag was coming he could have stayed out on the inters and changed on the grid, which the rules allowed everyone to do, and which had ruined his chances in Monaco. In other words, he’d made that third stop for nothing.
Red Flag: Lap 24, Wets to Wets on grid. Pos: 10
Incredibly the rain delay stretched out to hours, and all the time the clock was running – which meant that the official average speed of the eventual winner would be badly compromised. During the break Jenson found time for a discussion with Hamilton, who accepted that it was a racing incident. Clearing the air could only have been good for Button’s state of mind.
Meanwhile the team had 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.
“There were plenty of regrets while we sat and watched during the race suspension!” said Lowe. “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.”
Whitmarsh was keen to forget any mistakes and concentrate on the race resumption.
“What you do is think how do we make the best of this?,” he said. “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 focused, and just concentrate’.
“You can do a lot of examination and soul-searching about 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. We knew a lot could happen.”
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 Jenson got ahead of Pedro de la Rosa at the last chicane, who brushed the McLaren and lost his front wing. Jenson escaped without damage.
Several cars at the tail of the field went straight into the pits for Inters at the restart, and Jenson came in at the end of the first racing lap.
Stop 4: Lap 35, Wets to Inters. Pos: 15
The team refitted the scrubbed Intermediates that Jenson 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. Alonso had pitted a lap later, and came out just in front.
Jenson’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. With Alonso’s Ferrari stranded on the kerbs, the Safety Car emerged again.
Stop 5: Lap 37, Puncture, Inters to Inters: Pos 21
For a third time, Jenson continued after a collision, albeit with a puncture, but he had another long run back to the pits, where he collected a set of fresh Intermediates. The safety car at least limited the damage.
Jenson 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 Tonio Liuzzi’s HRT, instead of being on his tail.
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 overtook Narain Karthikeyan, Jarno Trulli, Jerome D’Ambrosio, Timo Glock, de la Rosa and Buemi. Stops for Paul Di Resta and Sutil gifted him a couple more places, leaving him in 12th by lap 45. After holding station for a while he passed both Pastor Maldonado and Jaime Alguersuari on lap 49.
The window for slicks was beginning to open. Webber and Barrichello were the first of the cars ahead of Jenson to stop, coming in on lap 50. McLaren now called Jenson in.
Stop 6: Lap 51, Inters to Slicks. Pos 10
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 Supersoft slicks left, Schumacher was the only one of the frontrunners to have the advantage of a remaining unused set.
“We could have gone a lap earlier, like Webber did,” said Lowe. “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 even more aggressive than we’d been 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 Jenson 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.
“For whatever reason, our car worked well in those conditions,” said Lowe. “I don’t know the answer. 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 Jenson, 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, Nico Rosberg, Vitaly Petrov, Nick Heidfeld and Felipe Massa (who crashed).
Kamui Kobayashi was struggling on slicks, and Button soon dispatched him. Thus, as of lap 55, the order looked like this:
So, with 15 laps to go, JB was 15s behind the leader – and on that lap 55 he had taken an astonishing 4s out of Vettel, who was still finding his feet on the slicks. The next lap JB sliced off another 2s off Vettel, while also catching the Schumacher/Webber battle. This was getting interesting…
Then we had another Safety Car interlude triggered by a crash for Heidfeld. Although he was on schedule to catch Vettel anyway, the yellow period made Button’s life even easier, as all those gaps shrunk to nothing. However, he had D’Ambrosio’s lapped Virgin between himself and Webber.
“In the end the shame I guess for Sebastian was that there kept being these Safety Cars,” said Lowe. “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, with exactly 10 still to go. Button blasted past the lapped Virgin and for three laps sat on the tail of Webber’s Red Bull, gaining a DRS boost as he did so.
At the end of lap 64 Webber got it wrong at the last corner, and Jenson 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 Jenson, had even got into 1m19s bracket!
“I think the car was obviously pretty good in the conditions, but again I don’t want to take anything from Jenson,” said Whitmarsh. “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.
“I think there’s a danger of overplaying all of that,” said Lowe. “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, Jenson 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.
“He popped through the field and we knew he had to put pressure on Sebastian,” said Whitmarsh. “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 Jenson 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.
For the first and only time, Jenson was in the lead!
“Vettel falling off on the last lap was 30% because we put him under pressure, and 70% because he messed it up,” Stallard recalls.
“You’ve got to give primary credit to Jenson,” Whitmarsh noted at the time. “He went out and did the job in a car that was okay, 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, who made a mistake. And that’s what happens when you put the pressure on. It was an incredible job by Jenson.”
Jenson’s best lap was 0.261s better than Vettel’s, both times set on the penultimate lap. It was also an amazing 2.1s faster than the third best lap, achieved by Vitaly Petrov…
“It’s too much to take in,” Lowe admitted as 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 the Safety Car in and we still hadn’t caught up with the train. So we were worse than last. 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…”
“I think the lesson is you don’t give up until the last second of the race!” said 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 pit-stops 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.”