Former F1 World Champion Jenson Button has warned McLaren-Mercedes' rivals that the significant leap forward in performance made by the hitherto troubled MP4-26 in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne just under a fortnight ago was merely 'the first step' for the team – as he forecasts 'a very different race' this weekend at Sepang.
With McLaren's new baby having been all out-of-sorts in terms of both reliability and
raw pace during pre-season testing, some 'dramatic changes' between the final test and the F1 2011 curtain-raiser around the streets of Albert Park enabled Lewis Hamilton to both qualify and finish second to Sebastian Vettel in the runaway Red Bull Racing – and Button could arguably have backed his team-mate and compatriot up in third place in the grand prix had it not been for his drive-through penalty for going off the circuit when overtaking Ferrari rival Felipe Massa.
As the F1 2011 circus readies itself for seconds-out, round two with the Malaysian Grand Prix, however, the British star – who achieved pole position and race victory in Kuala Lumpur as he sped to the drivers' crown two years ago – is adamant nothing can be taken for granted.
“We don't know what other people have been doing over the last two weeks, what they are bringing to this race,” he insisted, “but already in Australia, I think we should be happy with the performance that we had compared to what we had in testing. It was the first step really with the package that we had.
“We have some upgrades here to sort of fine-tune the package, which will give us more lap time and hopefully better consistency – but whether it's enough to challenge the Red Bulls, I don't know. There's a lot more that will come into play here, I think, in terms of the tyres. I think it will be a very different race to what we saw in Melbourne.”
Ah yes, the tyres. Pirelli's rubber was one of the main talking-points in the days after the Australian Grand Prix, but not for the reasons that might have been anticipated. Far from decrying the tyres – and the super-soft compound in particular – as not durable enough as had been the case all throughout the winter, drivers were if anything bemoaning them for being too
durable Down Under. Again, however, Button warns that the sheer heat and humidity of Malaysia will likely reveal a different picture and provide an altogether sterner challenger – and for the drivers, too.
“It is very hot here,” the 31-year-old reflected of what is by common consent the toughest race of the season from a physical point-of-view. “However much training you do, you still can't get away from the humidity. It is tough, and it's very difficult to simulate driving in humidity because it is very, very physical and it takes it out of you – and you can get quite claustrophobic. I have done a bit of training over the last weekend; I was in Hawaii for the week which was good, getting used to the humidity and pushing myself in the hot conditions.
“It's a very tough circuit for the cars, for the drivers but especially for the four things that are touching the road in the hot temperatures. I think there will possibly be more degradation. I think we were all surprised at how consistent the tyres were in the first race.
“I don't think that was the initial idea with the Pirelli tyres, to be so consistent. We saw a one-stop from [Sergio] Pérez, which was obviously the highlight of the race for a lot of people with how he was able to be so consistent, but I don't think it's going to be the same here. I think it will be very different – it's a lot more demanding and a lot tougher on the tyres. It brings another element into it.”