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Button on top in Bahrain as Toyota wait goes on

26 April 2009

Jenson Button confounded pre-race predictions to take his third win out of four in 2009 in the Bahrain Grand Prix, shattering Toyota's dreams in Sakhir with a superb performance that proved though they may have been somewhat down in qualifying, Brawn GP were far from out of contention come race day.

Indeed, the Formula 1 World Championship leader's triumph was all-the-more impressive given the ex-Honda F1 outfit had been forced to cut out some of the bodywork on its Mercedes-powered BGP 001s on the grid due to overheating issues, compromising to some extent the car's aerodynamic prowess.

The pivotal moment of the race came on lap two, when Button – who had been leapfrogged by countryman Lewis Hamilton at the start – dived down the inside of the McLaren-Mercedes into turn one to snatch back third place, and from there a solid first stint and strong pace throughout saw the 29-year-old prevail from Shanghai star Sebastian Vettel and brakes-wary pole-sitter Jarno Trulli...meaning Toyota's seemingly interminable wait for its breakthrough grand prix victory goes on.

A textbook getaway from Timo Glock when the lights went out enabled the German to out-drag his pole-sitting team-mate into the first corner, as defending world champion Hamilton put his KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) to perfect use to fight his way past both Button and Vettel into turn one. The British star would go on to attack Trulli too over the course of the opening lap, fleetingly getting by the Italian to spoil Toyota's perfect symmetry, before a mistake allowed the Pescara native back past again to re-establish the status quo.

Behind the leaders, Button wasted little time in finding a way past compatriot Hamilton, diving neatly by into the first corner at the start of the second lap, with the Stevenage-born ace then going on to frustrate the ambitions of Vettel behind in fifth, as Button made good his escape and set off after hunting down the two Toyotas and his Brawn GP team-mate Rubens Barrichello rounded out the top six.

There was considerable action further down the field, too, with drivers running three-abreast through some corners, with Barrichello nudging Felipe Massa into Ferrari team-mate Raikkonen into the first corner and BMW-Sauber ace Robert Kubica and Williams' Kazuki Nakajima both having to pit for new noses – in the Pole's case, his third in the space of just two races. Massa, too, had to pit – ending the Brazilian's already slim hopes of making it a hat-trick of victories in the desert kingdom.

Whilst the Toyotas traded lap times at the front of the pack, perhaps critically they were only inching away from Button, with Hamilton staving off Vettel's attentions several seconds further back. Crucially, too, Glock and Trulli both pitted earlier than expected – the former on lap ten and the latter on lap eleven. With both rejoining in traffic – Trulli now ahead of Glock – Button was able to jump the pair of them following his own first pit visit a handful of laps later.

Hamilton, too, was a beneficiary of the opening round of stops, exiting his own in-between the two Toyotas, with Trulli engaging in an entertaining battle with former team-mate Fernando Alonso that saw the pair run side-by-side and very nearly touch as the Spaniard exploited the KERS on his Renault to eventually find a way by. Glock, too, was tussling with countryman Nico Rosberg in his heavily-fuelled Williams, but the upshot of it all was that Button was clear – and pulling away.

Vettel was not quite so fortunate, his early stint behind Hamilton seeing the young German narrowly fail to get by Trulli when he rejoined the fray from his stop, but with the Toyotas using the middle stint to get their lesser-favoured medium-compound 'prime' tyres out of the way, Button was able to scamper away, soon boasting a seven-second advantage over Trulli, who was backing Vettel and Hamilton up into the charging Barrichello in fifth as the race began to swing in Brawn's favour all of a sudden. The latter was another man to enjoy a close scrap, having earlier battled tooth-and-nail to find his way by fellow Brazilian Nelsinho Piquet in the second Renault, trying every which way and eventually having to throw caution to the wind as he aimed his car down the inside into turn one and simply hoped he could slow it down in time for the apex. He could.

With the race approaching half-distance, Vettel – not for the first time during the grand prix – was beginning to look a little ragged as he desperately sought to find a way past Trulli, with Button already more than ten seconds ahead and Barrichello pitting early for his second stop as the most experienced driver in the field found himself rapidly gaining on the second-placed tussle.

Hamilton, too, was looking increasingly keen to find a way past Vettel, relinquishing the pressure on Trulli a touch, with Button's lead climbing all the time, and the only question mark remaining being whether Button had to stop once more, or twice.

Glock was again the first of the front-runners to pit for the second time, returning to the super-soft rubber for his final 24-lap stint, but Button motored serenely on, more than 16 seconds ahead with 22 laps left until the chequered flag, as he prepared to put a lap on Massa to emphasise just how far have the mighty fallen. The race leader was in next time around, as were Trulli and Hamilton – at which stage it became apparent that, in switching over to the medium tyres, Button was not going to have to stop again. He would, though, have to get through 20 laps on the troublesome medium-compound rubber.

That promoted Vettel into the race lead, and a series of hot laps by the Shanghai winner enabled him to jump Trulli following his own second stop, with the Italian having been delayed by a brief wheel-to-wheel duel with the ever-combative Barrichello and now needing to rapidly clear the Red Bull if he was still to have any hope of breaking Toyota's duck. With 16 laps left to run, Button led Vettel by 13.5 seconds, with Trulli a further second in arrears in third.

Button may not have particularly enjoyed his final stint on the prime tyres, but Vettel keeping Trulli at bay played handsomely in the Briton's favour as the time ticked down. The Italian lost further time when Kubica allowed Vettel past to lap him before moving abruptly back across in front of the Toyota in turn one, but with the laps diminishing and Button's advantage not, it was becoming increasingly academic.

There was, at least, one minor scare for the Brawn star when he happened upon the duelling Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella with just six laps to go, ceding 1.5 seconds to his pursuers as the Force India wandered across into his path and seemed to want to race the leader down the straight. That aside, though, it was relatively plain sailing, as the Frome-born ace maintained his composure in the sweltering heat to take the chequered flag a fraction over seven seconds to the good, with Vettel staving off Trulli's attentions all the way to the close for the runner-up laurels.

Hamilton took an excellent fourth ahead of Barrichello – whose three-stop strategy failed to pay off in the final reckoning – with Raikkonen and Glock duelling fiercely all the way to the end over sixth and seventh, with the former using KERS to perfect effect to find a way by and the latter almost running into the back of the Ferrari at one stage in his efforts to fight back. The Finn's three points also marked the Scuderia's first of the year, and saved the Maranello-based outfit from its worst start to a season in history, with fellow former F1 World Champion Alonso stealing the final marker for Renault in eighth.

Just outside the points, Rosberg was once again out of luck for Williams, with Piquet an encouraging tenth – just 13 seconds shy of his team-mate – Mark Webber eleventh in the second Red Bull from the back of the grid and Hamilton's team-mate Heikki Kovalainen a low-key twelfth. Sébastien Bourdais, Massa, Fisichella – who had impressively run right up the order early on – qualifying villain Adrian Sutil, Sébastien Buemi and the BMW-Saubers of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld rounded out the finishers. The latter's 19th place saw him overtake compatriot Michael Schumacher for the record of most consecutive finishes in the top flight with 25, albeit in somewhat underwhelming fashion.

The only retirement of the race was Nakajima with less than ten laps to run, but all that was of little consequence to Button. If two out of three ain't bad, then three out of four is surely even better still – and, who knows, maybe even the start of a genuine world championship challenge...

Crash.net Driver of the Day: Jenson Button (won a race he really shouldn't have won)

To see the result in full, click here


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