GREAT DRIVES – JENSON BUTTON 2011 CANADIAN GRAND PRIX
For the second in our series of great drives in Formula 1, we focus on Jensen Button and his epic drive at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2011.
For Round 7 of the 2011 World Championship, the Formula 1 circus headed for Monteal, Canada. Button, driving for McLaren Mercedes, went into the race off the back of an indifferent start to the season with 3 podium finishes. Following a dry qualifying, Button started the race seventh on the grid alongside 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher, and behind then current world champion Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Mark Webber, teammate Louis Hamilton, and Nico Rosberg. The McLaren car had showed good pace that season and was considered to be on par with Ferrari although behind the Adrian Newey designed Red Bull’s all-round performance.
For the scheduled 70 lap race, Pirelli had brought a total of 7 tyre compounds to the race meeting but after persistent rain in the morning the race started behind the safety car and it was the use of the 2 wet tyre compounds that would prove to be crucial during the race.
Vettel had been comfortable in qualifying and as the procession of cars left the grid it looked almost a formality that he would add to his tally of five wins from the six previous races.
With full wet cold tyres the drivers struggled for grip and it wasn’t until lap five, with a noticeable dry line developing, that the safety car was called in and finally the drivers could go racing.
As the race commenced for real, Alonso almost got the jump on Vettel but failed to pass the Red Bull. Whilst Webber and Hamilton collided dropping them both down the field, Button failed to take advantage with Schumacher and Hamilton passing him.
Over the next six laps Vettel extended his lead while the rest of the field jockeyed for positions behind him. A failed attempt to pass Schumacher caused Hamilton to run wide and lose a place dropping him to seventh behind Button. Hamilton compounded the situation when he collided with his teammate while trying to pass on the start straight. Button came away from the incident unscathed although Hamilton was less fortunate and retired from the race. Button took a precautionary pitstop for a fresh set of intermediate tyres which proved costly as the subsequent safety car meant many of the field gained a significant time and positional advantage. In his haste to recover Button fell foul of the stewards and received a drive through penalty for speeding behind the safety car. With the field concertinaed this proved costly as Button dropped further down the field to fifteenth place.
After five laps under the safety car while the track was cleared, the race resumed on lap 13. Vettel resumed his dominance enlarging his lead with Alonso and Massa trailing in his wake.
Alonso, not making any headway, decided a different tactic and went in for intermediate tyres with Schumacher and Rosberg following suit. This left Massa as the lone Ferrari in second place to chase Vettel, with Kobayashi in third place. The timing of the stop was awful as a few minutes later the rain returned with a vengeance.
Lap 19 arrived along with torrential rain forcing all the drivers back on to full wet tyres. Button, previously sitting in eighth place, dropped further down the field to eleventh. The rain continued and a lap later, with conditions getting worse, the stewards decided to bring the safety car back on to the track. This again closed up the field and Vettel’s lead was cut. The leaders at this point took their opportunity to pit under the safety car and grab a set of full wet tyres. The rain persisted and on lap 26 the race was suspended.
An eerie calm descended over the track with team activity put on pause while the rain poured. After over 2 hours the race resumed behind the safety car with the drivers in the positions held before the suspension, Vettel in first, followed by Kobayashi, Massa, Heidfeld, Petrov and di Resta. Webber was in seventh, Alonso eigth, de la Rosa in nineth, and Button in tenth.
After another 7 laps behind the safety car, during which the track started to dry, the cars were released to race again, and Vettel quickly resumed his relentless mission to build as big a gap between him and the rest of the field as possible. At this point with the track further drying, much of the field pitted to switch to intermediate tyres. As Alonso left the pits with a freshly fitted set of Intermediate tyres he collided with Button which sent the Ferrari into a spin, beaching it on the curb and bringing out the safety car yet again. Alonso’s car was quickly removed by the Marshalls and the race resumed three laps later.
Button, now in eigth place, had to pit due to a puncture resulting from his collision with Alonso. This left him now down in twenty-first and last place while Schumacher in fourth place posted the fastest lap of the race.
We were now on lap 46. Barrichello and Rosberg were contesting eighth place and Button had finally started to show some form catching and passing Maldonado and Alguersuari, for tenth place.
The track was now drying again, and Mark Webber blinked first switching to dry tyres. His times immediately improved prompting many of the remaining drivers on track to follow suit. There followed a frenetic few laps with Kobayashi and Massa, fighting for second place, while both being passed by Schumacher on lap 51. This was followed by Massa passing Kobayashi for third place. More and more drivers seeing the increased pace from the cars on slicks also pitted for fresh slick tyres.
Button had fought his way back to fourth place after a fortuitous pit stop and had started to catch Schumacher and Webber in second and third, with the imperious Vettel still out front.
As the race reached its later stages Heidfeld collided with Kobayashi causing yet another safety car deployment.
With the safety car came another round of pit stops with a number of drivers swapping places.
Racing resumed on lap 61 with many drivers uncertain how the race would play out immediately throwing caution to the wind. Barrichello was quickly passed by Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes with Alguersuari in the Torro Rosso close behind, and Massa moved up into ninth passing Barrichello and Maldonado. Kobayashi then tussled for fifth place with Petrov and lost, while Maldonado’s race ended with him spinning out on the same lap.
Button in this time had been steadily driving up through the field and from being dead last on lap 36 found himself behind Mark Webber in fourth place. Webber was now struggling for grip and Button took his chance on lap 64 to pass the Red Bull when Webber over shot the chicane. He then quickly caught Schumacher in the Mercedes and passed him taking second as they headed into the 65th lap. Button was now on a mission to win and began to see Vettel on the horizon. This gave him an added incentive and he duly posted the fastest lap of the race on lap 69.
Button was now right on Vettel’s tail with less than a second between them as they headed into the 70th and final lap. Button’s pressure on Vettel was relentless although it looked like Vettel would be able to just position the car correctly in the corners to keep Button at bay and bring home another victory.
As Button was beginning to run out of passing opportunities, Vettel unexpectedly lost the back end of the car in turn six, just 7 corners from home. Button took his chance and passed the Red Bull, to huge cheers from the thousands of spectators who had sat through the miserable weather. Vettel recovered and, with Webber 11 seconds behind in third, managed to hold on to second place with Schumacher in fourth.
An epic race that from lights to flag had taken over four hours to complete. Jenson Button would later say that it was the finest driver of his career.