Admitting that he has 'never known a year like it' in terms of competition and unpredictability, defending world champion Jenson Button has cautioned against writing Ferrari out of the F1 2010 title reckoning – as he hinted that a clearer picture of the true mid-season pecking order might emerge once the circus arrives at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in a week-and-a-half's time.
From seventh on the starting grid, Button finished a strong third in the European Grand Prix in Valencia last weekend with fastest lap to his credit, having enjoyed an entertaining and energetic tussle with Red Bull Racing rival Mark Webber and Renault ace Robert Kubica on the opening lap around the Spanish city's harbourside street circuit.
Benefitting from the safety car intervention on lap nine by being in just the right place at just the right time, the only subsequent fly in the ointment for the McLaren-Mercedes star was the late-stopping Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber just ahead of him, with the Japanese 'rookie' not pitting for a new set of boots until lap 53, four tours from home. On the very next lap, Button set the fastest time of the race.
“The first lap was really, really good fun,” the 30-year-old enthused. “I loved it! [It was] pretty crazy, I must say. I was side-by-side with Robert for ten corners from Turn One to Turn Twelve, and both of us went around Mark Webber, one of us on the inside and one of us on the outside, three-abreast into Turn Eight. It was great, clean but also fun with no touching and a really good battle. We continued fighting until Turn Ten, but I couldn't get around the outside of [Kubica] there – it was just too tight.
“After that, I was definitely helped out by the safety car. I got very lucky when it was triggered just as I was coming around the last two corners. I had been warned by the team beforehand, who said, 'there might be a safety car this lap', and turning right for the last corner at full-speed I heard 'safety car, safety car' and then saw the board so I dived into the pits and was able to jump Robert and two other cars. That was perfect for me.
“Then I got stuck behind Kobayashi, though, who did a good job I must say on his first set of tyres but still he was holding me up quite a bit, which was a little frustrating. His pace was okay, so I knew he wasn't going to pit early. He was pulling away from the rest of the field, but you just can't overtake around here. I was running pretty low downforce, which gave me good straight-line speed but I just couldn't get the exits out of the corners quick enough to get really tucked in behind him on the straights.
“As soon as he pitted, I had three or four laps before the end of the race when I could have some fun and see what lap time I could do with the car, and I was able to go 1.2, 1.3 seconds quicker than when I was behind him. It was good to have some clear air to really find out what the car could do, and it felt pretty good – I just wish I'd had more laps to play with! It was a great finish and it was great to get on the podium from seventh. It was a great result for the whole team to get second and third; we weren't quite good enough to win the race – Red Bull and Sebastian [Vettel] did a great job – but [it was] a great day for us.”
Of course, the incident that enabled the nine-time grand prix-winner to leapfrog some of his rivals in the first place by bringing out the safety car was the terrifying smash suffered by Webber, whose car did a good impression of the Red Bull Air Race as it became airborne after clipping the back of Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus under braking, and somersaulted in the air before coming down to land, thankfully without any damage to the man inside the cockpit – what Button acknowledged is testament to the safety and sturdiness of modern-day F1 machinery.
“That was a massive, horrific accident,” he underlined. “I am sure we all saw it on TV. Something similar happened in GP2 – a big, big accident, and I think the guy was a little bit more hurt than Mark was. Happily, [Webber] could walk away from that. It doesn't ever get much worse than that [with] the height that he got, so I am glad Mark is okay.