At the end of a 305-race stint as a grand prix driver, Jenson Button was often asked the same two questions.
The first was: what was your favourite era in Formula 1? To which he’d invariably talk fondly about the V10-era cars in 2004 and ’05, the final two years of those engine regulations when the cars were hugely powerful and fun to drive.
The second question was: what was the best race of your F1 career? Most people would probably point to that chaotic, rain-soaked four-hour marathon in Montreal as Jenson’s finest performance. Jenson himself would nod politely, then point out that, while Canada was probably his defining win, he’d made too many mistakes that afternoon to warrant calling it his outright best.
Then he’d point to his race in Suzuka, an emotional victory following the tsunami that devastated Japan earlier in the year, as probably the best race of his long and illustrious grand prix career. And it’s not hard to see why: it was an extremely tough race in which he not only had to managing the gap to his rivals, but also skilfully juggle his fuel settings while seeing off the firm challenge of no less than Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.
It’s no coincidence that both victories occurred in 2011 – a superb season for Jenson, one in which he scored three memorable wins and outscored team-mate Lewis Hamilton by 270 points to 227.
This is the story of that memorable year…
Jenson arrived at McLaren in 2010 as reigning World Champion after his successful Brawn GP season, and yet many observers assumed that it was not going to be easy to join a team where Lewis Hamilton was already well established.
He showed from the off that he meant business by winning twice in his first four races for the team, proving beyond all doubt that he was the right man for the job.
“Previously we’d had Heikki Kovalainen partnered with Lewis,” recalls Tim Goss. “And that was quite a good partnership, because Heikki pushed Lewis in qualifying, but was rarely quite as quick in the race, so he never took points off Lewis. Some of us were a bit disappointed to see Heikki go, but once we realised we’d signed Jenson, there was real excitement about it. We knew he was a great driver, and he’d proved it.
“A lot of the pundits believed that it was a mistake, and he was going to be dominated by Lewis, but he proved them all wrong. Right from the start it was quite clear that he could mix it with the best, and it actually did masses for his reputation. Up until that point people had put him down as lucky to be in the Brawn, a car that was quick. When he arrived at McLaren he proved that he was one of the greatest drivers out there.”
After his flying start to 2010 Jenson found life tougher as the season went on, as his team mate was much more comfortable with the car.
“In his first year, Jenson’s first few races in the team were very good,” says his performance engineer Tom Stallard. “Then we had a bit of a dry spell where we didn’t win as much as we felt we should. The 2010 car was all front end, which suited Lewis very well.”
The year of blowing hard
This was the era of blown diffusers, and getting it right was something of a black art. After a false start with the original concept of the 2011 car the team had a major re-think, and by the first race in Australia, the MP4-26 was flying.
“We pushed the boat out a bit,” says Goss. “I think we realised there was performance in blown diffusers, and we’d been very ambitious in what we’d been attempting to do on that car. In fact we were too ambitious. So through winter testing we were chasing after a lot of performance.
“It was there, but we’d beaten off more than we could chew, and actually more than was physically possible. In winter testing we actually looked quite uncompetitive, and through the period to the first race we abandoned what we were doing on the exhaust system and adopted something that was a bit simpler, and similar to the Red Bull solution.
“It transformed the back end, and from that moment we knew we had a quick car. We hadn’t tested at the track, just run it in the wind tunnel, and there was a lot of apprehension about whether it would deliver at the track. From the moment the car rolled out in Australia, both Jenson and Lewis knew they had a really competitive car, and that just changes the whole momentum and feeling at the team.”
“That car had a lot of exhaust blowing,” says Stallard. “Which gave it a lot of lateral support, which is something that Jenson likes – he likes a car that’s stable at the rear. The car performance came to him a little. These things don’t always happen by accident, so some of that was the fact that he’d been in the team long enough, and he was starting to have more of an influence in terms of what we were looking for from the car.
“Jenson’s feedback has always been very specific, very direct and very accurate. Perhaps Lewis was better at getting more out of a wider range of cars, whereas Jenson is very clear that if the rear of the car is limited, it costs him performance.”
The season kicks off
The first race in Australia proved disappointing for Jenson, and after qualifying fourth he lost time stuck behind Felipe Massa’s Ferrari, eventually finishing sixth. However next time out in Malaysia he took an encouraging second place: “We had a very good final stint,” says Stallard. “I think he overtook Lewis. Jenson got on very well with the harder tyres.”
In Shanghai Jenson qualified on the front row, alongside Sebastian Vettel. He led early on but ultimately finished fourth after a mistake in his pit stop.
“China was a good race where we went into it thinking we could win, and he got a good start, which meant we got up from second to leading the first stint. and then there was some confusion around the pit stop which culminated in him stopping in the Red Bull pit box, which was a bit embarrassing! Lewis won the race, but on Jenson’s side we were all very frustrated. We felt we could have got more out of that one.”
Jenson continued to log points with sixth in Turkey and then third in Spain. Then came Monaco, where he’d won the previous year with Brawn. A good strategy meant that in the closing laps he was third behind Vettel and Alonso, but on much fresher tyres. However, he was unable to take advantage as a red flag caused by Vitaly Petrov’s crash meant that everyone could restart on fresh rubber.
“It’s a real shame that the race didn’t pan out until the end,” says Stallard. “Because it would have been fascinating to see whether Vettel could have hung on. We still feel he couldn’t have, obviously! As soon as the flag came out it was game over.”
A four-hour epic
Next stop was Montreal, a race that will forever be remembered as one of the most spectacular of Jenson’s career. The race had everything – rain, safety cars, a red flag, and a collision with Lewis.
“It was probably the most memorable race, but being honest I don’t think it was his best performance,” says 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. There was a collision with Lewis, and a collision with Alonso that got us a drive through penalty.”
“I remember supporting that one at the factory,” says Goss. “Things weren’t going well, we were in last place, the race was suspended, I remember sitting there and it was getting very, very late into the evening, and thinking let’s get this over with. We’re in last place, one driver has dropped out, there’s nothing to hope for! It just shows that you should never give up.
“Under the red flag we could make some changes to the car, and we were debating what we could change and what might make a difference. We set various key components on the car up for the wet. It was a combination of that, getting the car right for the damp and drying conditions, and Jenson’s known ability in the wet that meant that he could drive from being at the back of the grid to the front.
“Once he got going we pretty soon realised that he was outperforming everybody else. None of us dared think that he was going to win the race, but as it progressed you began to see that there was a chance. The way he drove those last five or six laps, overtaking Schumacher and Webber I think, and then chasing down Vettel on the final lap and actually pushing him into a mistake, was fantastic.”
“Vettel falling off on the last lap was 30% because we put him under pressure, and 70% because he messed it up,” says Stallard. “We were gifted a lot of places, and if you look at Spa 2012, when Jenson dominated the weekend, or Japan 2011, those were for me better as a whole.”
Pushing on with the season
By now Jenson was lying second in the World Championship, albeit some way behind leader Vettel. After a frustrating sixth place Jenson went to Silverstone in optimistic mood, but not for the first time his home race brought disappointment, and he retired after leaving the pits with a loose wheel.
“The Silverstone one was a team problem rather than a driver problem,” says Stallard. “It was a real shame, because that was probably his best ever opportunity to get on the podium at home. It was a cross-threaded wheel, which we knew straight away as the car left the pits, but it was too late to stop him. He got just past the pit exit, and it was obvious the wheel was loose.”
With no points that weekend he tumbled back to fifth in the championship, and next time out at the Nurburgring he retired with a hydraulics problem, losing further ground to his rivals. Then came Hungary, where once again wet weather played to his strengths.
“It was another race of changeable conditions, where he did a pretty good job,” says Stallard. “There was a moment in that race when he was behind Lewis and it started to spot with rain. We called them both in to pit for the inter tyre.
“Jenson knew it was a double shuffle, and as it turned out just before the pit entry we said to him, ‘Stay out, stay out.’ He came back on the radio and said ‘I’m staying out anyway.’ He never confirmed that he was coming in. Lewis pitted, put the inter on, and it lasted two laps! That was another case of Jenson having a sixth sense for the weather.”
“Hungary was an example of the way Jenson could read a race very well when it was wet or damp conditions,” agrees Goss. “And just know when the time is right to either change to wets or change back onto dries. On Lewis’s side of the garage they got the call wrong, if I remember, and that gave the opportunity to Jenson. I think it was another deserved victory in wet conditions, and the car actually performed very well in the wet.”
There was more rain in qualifying at Spa, but due to a mix-up Jenson backed off right at the end of Q2 when the track was getting faster, and he didn’t make it to Q3.
“It was a drying Q2 session,” says Stallard. “He did a quick lap with time to do one more lap, put it P1, then backed off, and everyone went faster! Dave Robson hadn’t said you’ve only got one more lap, he let him complete the lap, assuming Jenson would keep pushing. And Jenson backed off.”
From 13th on the grid he did a great job in the race to secure third place, moving up to fourth – ahead of Lewis – in the championship. At Monza he was again on the podium with a solid second.
“He just drove fantastically in the race. There was one lap when he passed Lewis and Michael Schumacher on the same lap – Lewis got stuck behind Michael, Jenson caught them up, and drove past both of them!”
In Singapore Jenson chased down leader Sebastian Vettel in the closing laps, but there was never going to be a chance to pass. However, another runner-up spot moved him back up to second in the championship. Next time at Suzuka he was on superb form, logging his third win of the season.
“That weekend he was fastest in every session except qualifying,” says Stallard. “When he was nine milliseconds off pole! That was one of the weekends that I look back on and really feel that we got everything right. In the race he drove really well. The car was quite light on fuel, so he was doing a lot of fuel saving towards the end of the race, and he began struggling with the temperatures and everything.
“When he crossed the finish line it became clear there was no fuel in the car for the in-lap, so he just parked it at the pit exit. He had to wedge the steering wheel under the wheel to stop it rolling down the hill! Japan is a bit of a second home so for him, that was a very emotional victory.”
“He’s always been really quick at Suzuka,” says Goss. “He loves Japan anyway, and the fact that he can win on a drivers’ circuit like Suzuka speaks volumes for his ability.”
The next run of races saw a fourth in Korea, a strong second in India, and third in Abu Dhabi, where an intermittent KERS issue made life difficult. Heading into the finale in Brazil Jenson was 10 points clear of Alonso and determined to hang on to second in the World Championship.
Clinching runner-up spot
“In Brazil we had a problem picking up fuel,” Stallard explains. “We had plenty in the tank but we had a problem picking it up, it became clear with about 10 laps to go that the car couldn’t use all of its fuel, so we told him to start saving fuel a lot.
“At the start of the final lap we knew he had to finish well in order to maintain second in the drivers’ championship, we had become quite a big focus for us. At the start of the final lap all of our sensors were telling us that we’d run out of fuel, because we couldn’t get any more out of the tank at all. The car eventually shut itself off 50 metres after the finish line. It made it all the way up the hill! There was plenty of fuel in it for the sample, we just couldn’t get it out of the tank into the fuel collector and then into the engine.”
Jenson comfortably secured second place in the World Championship, not a bad outcome given that, along with 2013, this was one of two seasons where Vettel and Red Bull proved dominant. Nevertheless, Jenson beat Mark Webber in the other Red Bull, and also outscored fifth-placed Lewis by 270 points to 227.
“He actually beat Vettel in the second half of the year, if I remember,” says Stallard. “Obviously we knew how good Lewis was. When Jenson joined even people within the team thought he would struggle against Lewis, but as that season went on it he got more and more confident. Lewis might out-qualify him, but he could be completely confident that he would get past Lewis in the races.”
“That season he kept quite a cool head,” says Goss. “Whereas Lewis went a bit astray, to Jenson’s benefit. Lewis picked up loads of penalties. He was still quick, but he leaked away too many points. Jenson always delivered, he was putting in the podiums race after race. He was always there, and a lot of times he came from behind, it wasn’t that he qualified up there necessarily. Clearly the car was right for him and he got the most out of it, just from performance and professionalism.”