Jenson Button has admitted that he and Brawn GP are at a loss to explain why the Mercedes-powered BGP 001 has fallen so far off the pace in recent weeks, as a third consecutive failure to reach the rostrum in the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest today has put his title challenge in more jeopardy than ever.
The British star came home a distant and disgruntled seventh around the Hungaroring – on paper, just the type of circuit that should have suited his car down to the ground, by dint of its tight and twisty nature and hotter temperatures than experienced of late at Silverstone and the Nürburgring, where Brawn had received a drubbing at the hands of Red Bull.
However, due to tyre-graining issues and a general lack of pace, the 29-year-old ultimately crossed the finish line the best part of a minute behind race-winner Lewis Hamilton, and almost 40 seconds adrift of Mark Webber, now his closest threat in the title chase and a man who over the past three grands prix has tallied 24 points, compared to Button's nine.
The Frome-born ace – who drove to his breakthrough victory in the top flight from 14th on the grid when the heavens uncharacteristically opened in Hungary three years ago – has now seen his advantage in the chase for the coveted crown reduced to just 18.5 points, and during the race could be heard bemoaning to his team that he could not understand just how a car that only a matter of weeks ago was a world-beater had suddenly become so bad.
“We felt positive that we could get a good result today,” he remarked afterwards, “but unfortunately it turned into damage limitation for our championship challenge. I was heavily-fuelled after qualifying and our plan was to get a good start, stay with the cars in front and then I was going longer at the first stop. My rear tyres grained massively in the first few laps, though, which took away any chance that I had of keeping pace with the front-runners.
“We don't know what the problem is right now, as our pace on the 'Option' tyre on Friday was pretty good and we were able to manage the rear end much better than some of the others. The car just doesn't feel like it did a few races ago, but we'll work hard to identify the problems before Valencia. It's disappointing as we had high hopes for this race, but we were fortunate to come away with two points.”
That was two points more than Rubens Barrichello took away with him in the sister entry, as the Brazilian – the most experienced driver in F1 history – continued to pay the price for his suspension failure the previous day in qualifying. From 13th on the starting grid, an early touch with a rival left the São Paulista with damage to his left sidepod and down in 18th place, but a determined performance allied to a bold strategy would haul him up to tenth at the flag, agonisingly barely a second away from the final point.
“There was some good action out there, but my race was really compromised from the start,” the 37-year-old related, “which is a shame as the potential was definitely there for a points finish. I had some contact from another car when I turned into the second corner, which dropped me to the back of the field.
“It was always going to be difficult to make progress from there, but there were flashes of pace, particularly during the last stint when I was able to close up to the cars ahead. It's been a very difficult weekend and one to forget really. We know that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us to find out what is affecting our performance.”
“Hungary has proved to be a very challenging weekend for the team, which has left us with a number of questions to answer regarding the performance of the car,” summarised the Brackley-based outfit's team principal Ross Brawn. “After a positive start on Friday where we felt that we had a good understanding of the tyres, they proved to be our main area of concern in the race today. Both drivers tried different strategies with their tyre choices, but we were unable to prevent the graining which affected their pace at crucial stages of the race.
“We have four weeks until the next race, and after our factory shutdown we will be working extremely hard to identify the cause of our recent issues and make the improvements required to return to our early-season form. Finally, congratulations to Mercedes-Benz on a very well-deserved win today, for what is their seventh victory of the season.”