As the defence of his hard-fought F1 World Championship crown hangs by a thread, Jenson Button has conceded that if McLaren-Mercedes' 'new parts' for the inaugural Korean Grand Prix next weekend fail to vault the team ahead of title rivals Red Bull Racing and Ferrari, it could just spell the end of his and Lewis Hamilton's chances.
Button converted fifth on the grid into fourth at the chequered flag in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka on Sunday, but he was never in remotely the same race as the runaway Red Bulls of winner Sebastian Vettel and runner-up – and world championship leader – Mark Webber, and not even able to keep pace with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who completed the podium in third.
A gamble on tyre strategy – opting to begin the grand prix on the 'Prime' rubber whilst his immediate competitors all plumped for 'Options' – failed to pay off for the British star, and he reflected afterwards that P4 was about the best he could have hoped for in the circumstances. He acknowledges that McLaren will need to perform considerably better on the second leg of its Far Eastern adventure next weekend if it is to remain in the hunt into the final two outings in Brazil and Abu Dhabi next month.
“The strategy didn't really pay off,” the 30-year-old is quoted as having said by the official F1 website. “Probably we should have pitted to put the Options on, but we stayed on the Prime. I am a little bit disappointed, and we have to look at the data and the reason why we didn't do it earlier.
“It was a pretty tough race, and at first glance [fourth] might not look too bad, but we are in the fight for the championship and then you should cover the people that you are racing – we didn't do that. The two Red Bulls were unbeatable, and Fernando was very quick in the Ferrari.”
Indeed, having brushed aside notions pre-weekend that it is now the 'third force' in the closing stages of F1 2010 [see separate story – click here
], it would appear that McLaren is very much on the back foot with only three races remaining on the schedule and the Woking-based outfit 45 points adrift of RBR in the constructors' chase, and Hamilton and Button respectively 28 and 31 shy of Webber in the drivers' standings. The latter admits that next weekend could quite literally be make-or-break.
“After [Japan] it has become very difficult, and if we are not more competitive in Korea, it looks pretty tough,” the nine-time grand prix-winner mused. “Overall I would say that whatever strategy we would have played, fourth place probably was the maximum for us [at Suzuka]. My hope is that the new parts for Korea will put us ahead of the Red Bulls, but we have to wait and see.
“We are working as hard as we can and bringing as many improvements as we can. We should be competitive and probably have an advantage in Korea. Then we should be in good shape.”