After the Turkish Grand Prix in June, it looked as though Jenson Button had the F1 world championship in the bag. Six wins in the opening seven races of the season gave Button the most dominant start to a year by any driver since 2006. And Button's 26-point lead in the title race looked unassailable.
Since then, however, the British driver has not set foot on the podium, scoring just 11 points in the last four races. Meanwhile, the three drivers behind him in the standings have closed in on his lead, Mark Webber having turned a 33.5-point deficit into one of 20.5 points.
In part, Button's change of fortunes—which could plausibly see him lose the title that seemed so assured just two and a half months ago—can be explained by a lack of competitiveness in his Brawn GP car, which has ceased to be the quickest car on the grid following the upturn in fortunes of Red Bull Racing.
However, it is also undeniable that errors have begun to creep into the Englishman's previously flawless driving style, and now that the car is less competitive, he is beginning to suffer at the hands of his teammate Rubens Barrichello.
Barrichello won today's European Grand Prix in emphatic fashion, putting in a string of excellent laps to leapfrog the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton at the final round of pit stops. Meanwhile, Button languished in seventh, a late charge against Fernando Alonso's Renault coming to nothing.
In March, I published an analysis of the Australian Grand Prix, focusing specifically on the fortunes of the Brawn cars. There Button finished first ahead of Barrichello, but in reality the Brazilian was fortunate to finish second after a late collision took out two cars in front of him. The main thrust of the analysis was that Button's near-perfect drive stood in sharp contrast to Barrichello's error-strewn performance, the difference in the quality of their race craft being reflected in the result.
Now it's late August, and the tables have turned. It was Barrichello who today turned in the stellar drive, while Button made the mistakes that cost him the chance to make the most of his car's pace.
Squeezed towards the barriers by Sebastian Vettel at the start, Button lost several places at the first corner as he lifted off to avoid embedding his Brawn in the scenery. Fending off a challenge from Mark Webber a few corners later, he cut across a chicane, leaving the irate Australian complaining to his team.
Then Button attempted an audacious overtake on Alonso. We have seen such passes in the early laps of previous races transforming the afternoon for Button, but today any such transformation was purely negative. Outbraking himself, the British driver lost out to the Spaniard and almost collected Webber on his way back onto the track.
Button was then instructed by his team to yield to the Red Bull driver, mindful of the penalties that had been handed out in the past to drivers who had cut corners. That left a frustrated world championship leader stuck behind his nearest rival for much of the rest of the race, with Button only managing to get past in the final round of pit stops.
All of this left Button a distant seventh, over half a minute behind his teammate, having shown none of the skill and class that highlighted the first seven races of the season.
While Button benefits from his principal title rivals—Webber, Vettel and, to some extent, Barrichello—taking points off one another, the damage inflicted on his season has been far worse than a reduction of eight points in his championship lead suggests.
In Britain, he started seventh and never really shone, inheriting sixth place at the flag. A low-fuel run in Germany saw him third in qualifying, though he fell back to fifth in the race—and even that result was in part down to an orchestrated swap between the two Brawn drivers near the finish. Hungary and Europe have been similar torrid affairs, with a pair of seventh-place finishes as all Button has to show for his efforts.
In the past, Button has been criticised for failing to get the most out of cars that are less than perfect—he simply cannot, it seems, drive around set-up issues in his car in the way that many good and great drivers can. As Brawn struggle for momentum relative to Red Bull, this could be the reason for his sudden drop in performance.
But the difference between himself and Barrichello in today's Grand Prix shows that it is not all about the car. If Jenson Button wants to win this year's world championship, he needs to cut the errors and begin driving like a champion.