Jenson Button has admitted that his chances of securing a first pole position of 2011 evaporated as soon as Sebastian Vettel completed his flying lap in Q3 at Shanghai International Circuit, but insisted that he could still look forward to an exciting race.
Although it has been McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton leading the pursuit of Vettel on pace so far this season, Button was buoyed by his second place behind the German in Malaysia last weekend and, inspired by getting the better of Hamilton in final practice on Saturday morning in China, proceeded with the upper hand in qualifying.
Having eased through a first session that saw an ever-changing top order, claiming tenth place on the harder prime tyre, Button briefly held P1 in Q2 before settling for second place, not even bothering to venture out after a red flag interruption, so content was he with his 1min 34.662secs lap on the option rubber. With just over a tenth separating him from pacesetter Vettel in that session, McLaren believed that its charge had a legitimate shot at pole position in the final phase but, despite setting another personal best lap, Button acknowledged that his chance had gone as soon as he was told of Vettel's response.
“After Q2, I thought we'd have a shot at pole today, but, looking at Sebastian's final lap time, second place was realistically all we could do," he conceded after realising the German had dipped into the 1min 33s and set the fastest ever lap of SIC.
With team-mate Hamilton third fastest - the victim of a slight lock-up on his flying lap - and the second RBR entry of Mark Webber languishing in 18th after a strategic misfire on tyres, Button reckons that McLaren has another good chance of taking the fight to its main rival on race day.
"It's great that we got two cars into the top three – we really extracted the maximum from the package today," he enthused, aware that the MP4-26 is still far from the best it can be, “Overnight, we made some improvements to the car and, while I think there are still areas where we need to improve to challenge Red Bull, I want to say a big thank-you to the guys in the garage and back at the factory. They've been working really hard and have given us a car that we can really build on over the next couple of races.
“This is my best grid position of the season, the car felt really consistent all afternoon and I got pretty much everything out of it. And, for tomorrow, I think our race pace will be a little bit closer to Red Bull than our quali pace. We can have a good race from this grid position.”
Team boss Martin Whitmarsh paid tribute to his driver, admitting that Button 'fully deserves his second place on the grid'.
“We ran an extremely well-disciplined set of sessions today," he commented, "After failing to extract the maximum from the cars on Friday, we made a significant number of improvements to the cars on Friday evening and quickly established a satisfactory pace in this morning's practice session. We were then able to carry that performance over into qualifying – and second and third positions on the grid are a great reward for the effort we invested in getting our cars optimised for this circuit. Jenson's lap at the beginning of Q3 was a fantastic effort.”