The Spanish GP was yet another triumph for Jenson Button in 2009. However, this is a race which Rubens Barrichello knows should have won.
A change of strategy in Button’s race from three stops to two stops left the conspiracy theorists wondering whether there were team orders at play.
Rubens himself questioned the tactical decision. He also told reporters that he would leave if there was any “sniff” of Jenson being favoured over him.
So were there team orders?
Looking back at the lap times from the race it becomes evidently clear, that it was Ruben’s third stint that cost him race victory.
Brawn GP started the race intending to use a three-stop strategy for both drivers. Brawn GP’s simulations showed this to be the quicker option. Catalunya is one of the worst tracks for tyre degradation on the calendar.
Therefore, three stops becomes a feasible option with shorter stints, which is less demanding on the tyres. Michael Schumacher won the Spanish GP in 2004 making three pit stops.
It started well for Rubens. He made a great start and went around the outside of Jenson in a brave manoeuvre going into turn one. He then edged Button in the opening stint, with the gap between them hovering between 1.0-2.0 seconds
Jenson came in first. This was the point where Brawn GP switched him to two stops. To make a three-stop race work it is vital to have clear track throughout the entire race. The driver also has to be on the limit the whole time to make the most of the strategy.
Any time spent being held up by another car would destroy Jenson’s race. Had the team stuck to the original plan Jenson would have ended up being stuck behind the Williams of Nico Rosberg.
Rubens Barrichello pitted the next lap, and the team left on the originally planned three-stop strategy. As he took less fuel on board he was now comfortably ahead of Button on track. He now had to put the hammer down, and open up a gap.
In this part of the race he was doing a great job, and the plan was working. By the time Rubens pitted for the second time he was over 12.0 seconds ahead of Jenson. He was on target for victory at this point according to the simulations.
In the next phase of the race he now had to close in on Jenson. He could then leapfrog him in the final phase of pit stops. If he could perform as well as he had done in his second stint, then he would be the man standing in the middle of the podium.
This is where it all went wrong.
Instead of making the gap to Jenson smaller, it increased instead. Here is a chart of comparing the lap times of the two Brawn GP drivers in this deciding phase of the race. The quicker time of the pair on each lap is highlighted in bold.
Last 16 laps of Button’s second stint
Barrichello’s third stint
On most of these laps Jenson delivered a quicker time. The times were also super consistent.
The times are covered by no more than 0.1 or 0.2 seconds (excluding lap 33).
Barrichello’s times on the other hand were slower than Jenson’s apart from the odd exception.
What is also very noticeable is that his times were all over the place compared to Button’s.
There are a few big time differences between a few of those laps. For example on lap 38 he was over 0.5 seconds slower than on lap 39.
At the beginning of his third stint Rubens was 8.7 seconds behind Jenson. On 47 (the lap before Jenson came in for his last stop) that gap had grown to 12.1 seconds.
Barrichello went two laps longer than Jenson coming in on lap 50 for his final pit stop. When Barrichello exited the pits he emerged 7.1 seconds behind Button. He now had to deal with the chasing Mark Webber. At the chequered flag Rubens was 13.0 seconds behind Jenson.
Rubens Barrichello blamed this poor third stint on a bad set of tyres.
He just wasn’t able to deliver the times he needed in the third stint for whatever reason.
He explained after the race that he was surprised when he heard that Jenson had switched to two stops. Maybe when he found this out, the thought of team orders crept into his mind, which could have distracted him.
The drop in performance after he found out about Jenson’s tactical switch, suggests that this could have been the case.
There was certainly no intention of favouring Jenson. The reason for transferring Jenson over to two stops was a legitimate one. The team were still anticipating that Barrichello would come out on top, but it was going to be close.
Credit should be given to Jenson on his own performance. His pace on heavy fuel was stunning. He was struggling initially at the beginning of the weekend, but he altered his driving style to extract more speed.
Jenson Button actually thought he was at a disadvantage when he changed over to two stops. In the end he pulled off another brilliant and flawless performance. He beat Barrichello fair and square.
It’s too early in the season for team orders to be even considered. Yes, Jenson has clearly had an edge over Barrichello so far, but the gap between the pair isn’t as big the results suggest. This season just hasn’t quite gone Barrichello’s way so far.
He is only 14 points behind Jenson Button.
Although there is no doubt that he can’t let the gap grow much bigger. If the gap heads towards the 25 or 30 points mark, then there will be a time, when Ross Brawn will have to tell Rubens that he has to help Jenson. In that scenario that is common sense in this writer’s view.
The next few races are critical for Barrichello’s season. They will decide whether he becomes a title challenger or back to the dreaded role of No. 2.
Anything could happen. Button might swipe the barrier in Monaco, and Rubens could win. That would reduce the gap to just four points and it would be game on!
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