Midseason Review: Grading McLaren's Jenson Button

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Midseason Review: Grading McLaren's Jenson Button
Clive Mason/Getty Images
It's been a head-scratching kind of season for Jenson Button

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jenson Button. He was my first ever Formula One interviewee when I made my first tentative steps into F1 journalism as a fresh-faced deputy editor of the BMW Williams team website way back in 2000.

I've followed his career closely since then and was delighted when he became world champion with Brawn GP in 2009. Since winning that life-changing title, Button has enjoyed three relatively successful seasons for new employees McLaren, even finishing second behind Sebastian in 2011. But after the red herring that was an encouraging preseason testing, things have sadly been a real struggle so far for Button in 2013 and he’s not always seeing eye-to-eye with his feisty young teammate Sergio Perez.

Having won the Australian Grand Prix on three separate occasions, the season opener was a worrisome sign of things to come with Button qualifying 10th and finishing ninth. Malaysia offered a two-place improvement in qualifying pace and Button looked set for a solid points finish, but a problem in the pits saw his front left tyre incorrectly fitted, leading to extreme vibrations that ended his chances.

If fifth is where Button should have finished in Malaysia, fifth is what he achieved in China on a two-stop strategy having actually led the race for a number of laps. But race strategy dictated Button nurse his tyres instead of fighting for position, a factor that Button found frustrating as quoted by ESPNF1 in his post-race team interview.

Clive Mason/Getty Images
Fifth in China was a rare highlight

The cars were so much quicker than me and there was no point racing because it would have destroyed our strategy. One lock-up, one trip over the marbles and the tyres would have been gone so our strategy wouldn't have worked and it was a very tight strategy.  We had to be careful, we had to be clever and intelligent and I think as a team we did that today. It was so difficult, I would radio in and say "Can I fight them?" They'd come back and say "Yes, fight, fight!" And then ten seconds later "No, you need to look after the tyres and get to our target lap."

Then came Bahrain and the first signs of friction between teammates Button and Perez after a wheel-banging battle saw the Mexican almost barge Button off the circuit.

The end result saw Perez finish sixth, but a fuming Button couldn’t contain his anger in his post-race interview with BBC Sport after finishing down in 10th place. 

Button and Perez aren't quite as friendly now as they were pre-season

I was very vocal on the radio - emotions were running high - but I would say the same thing again. Banging wheels at 300kph isn't something we do in Formula 1 normally, so it's a new thing for me. Maybe this is the way we go racing now, I don't know. But it's not the way I want to go racing. We'll have to have a little chat I think because I don't like banging wheels at 300kph. That's dangerous. He has to calm down. I mean, he's extremely quick and did a great job today but some of it is unnecessary and an issue when you're doing those speeds.

With the incident in Bahrain still fresh in the memory, Perez was closing on Button for eighth place in Spain before receiving a clear radio message to conserve his tyres and not challenge. Whether wearing rubber was really the issue is a moot case, but McLaren clearly wanted to avoid another such incident.

Perez outqualified past 2009 Monaco winner Button in Monaco. Button drove a typically smooth race to collect more points in sixth, while the Mexican was again on the end of a tirade of abuse, this time from Kimi Raikkonen after the pair collided late on at the Nouvelle Chicane, giving Raikkonen a puncture and ending Perez’s race.

Button bemoaned starting on the prime tyre rather than the option for finishing well down in Canada on a circuit that had previously suited McLaren and there was to be no home joy at Silverstone as the prime again grained badly on his opening stint.

Germany saw a welcome return to the points as Button made up three places from his grid position to finish sixth, but the Englishman was not such a happy bunny in Hungary after he told BBC Sport he had "felt like a target" after both Vettel and Romain Grosjean touched him during a race that saw him finish seventh.

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Button said he felt like a target in Hungary

That was a fun race - although I seemed to be a target for other cars. Sebastian Vettel tried many times to get past me, and clipped my rear wheel into Turn Two - he may have damaged his wing, but I was lucky not to get a puncture. Then later on Grosjean obviously didn’t realise that he wasn’t past me or don't know what he thought - unless I took to the grass, it was inevitable we were going to touch. I don't think he was thinking.

It’s been a tough season for Button so far and clearly McLaren have a lot of work to do. But with the focus already turning to next year’s machine, the signs are that the second half of 2013 will be just as testing.

 

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Jenson’s midseason marks:

Temperament: 8/10

Qualifying: 7/10

Race craft: 7/10

Summary: Button has gamely stuck to his task in his most uncompetitive chariot for years. Eighth in the standings looks like his most optimistic outcome.

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