Button's win can't prevent Vettel clinching title
9 October 2011
Jenson Button overcame a choppy start to his Japanese Grand Prix and withstood late pressure from a hard-charging Fernando Alonso to win at Suzuka - but it still wasn't enough to hold off the inevitable second world championship title from going to Sebastian Vettel.
Button and Vettel nearly ended their races at the green flag when Sebastian Vettel responded to a flying start from Button by veering across Button's path, forcing the McLaren to put a tyre on the grass going down into turn 1. Button had to back off and lost second place to Lewis Hamilton who was sweeping around the outside line from third on the grid.
That seemed to put Button well and truly on the backfoot, but if there's any driver who is able to take a calm long-term view of proceedings it's Jenson, and he duly collected himself and waited for the race to unfold. He was soon rewarded by finding Hamilton slowing up in front of him on lap 9, as Lewis reported a slow puncture and had to come in for an even earlier pit stop than McLaren had been intending.
Pit stops soon followed for the rest of the leaders as well. Vettel had already stretched out a big lead by this point, so much so that even an unusually casual stop from Red Bull did no harm to Vettel's comfortable cushion at the front. Jenson Button came in next with Fernando Alonso right behind, and McLaren had no such luxury of an easy stop if they wanted to prevent Ferrari jumping Button for position.
Felipa Massa was the last of the leaders to pit on lap 12, handing back to the lead to Vettel. Button and Alonso followed in second and third, with Massa dropping back into line behind Hamilton but still ahead of Mark Webber who was struggling to do anything more than hold position in sixth place.
All the teams were worried with the tyre wear at this point, with Michael Schumacher informed by the Mercedes pit crew that his front tyres had been very badly blistered in that first run. Lewis Hamilton soon wore out his new set of tyres and after recovering from his early slow puncture with a series of overtaking moves he soon started to struggle to maintain his fifth position from Massa was who was bearing down on his old enemy.
But the surprise loser in the game of rubber roulette turned out to be the race leader, Sebastian Vettel, who never looked comfortable on this set of tyres and who saw his lead being eaten into at an alarming rate by Button. Vettel ended up pitting again on lap 20, with Mark Webber coming in behind him just seconds later in a risky but well-executed double-stop strategy for the Red Bull pit crew.
Button responded next time around - and exited pit lane right ahead of Vettel, who had lost out badly to the Briton in the sequence of in- and out-laps. Vettel looked like he almost had the momentum to sweep round Button through the first turn, but Button held on and claimed the position. Almost at once Button started to pull out a lead over Vettel, who certainly wasn't letting him go without a fight as he locked up his brakes in pursuit before having to concede that the lead was gone. Button was soon falling over back markers such as Daniel Ricciardo which allowed Vettel to close back up again, but Button coped with the crisis and soon started to pull away again.
Button's team mate Lewis Hamilton was having a less successful time of things, coming under increasing pressure from Massa to the point where the two clashed after running nearly side-by-side into the chicane on lap 22. Hamilton escaped the contact without any visible damage, but Massa's front wing got relieved of an end plate that flew off.
That bit of debris combined with more at turn 7 triggered a safety car on lap 24 shortly after all the leaders had completed their second round of pit stops. Many of the cars outside the top ten popped into pit lane for a "free" stop but the leaders weren't in a pit stop window and remained out, Jenson Button leading them back to the green flag on lap 28 which he nailed and quickly started to pull away again from Vettel.
It was increasingly looking as though Vettel was now looking at getting the title locked down and had ceded the win, not least because the Red Bull wasn't lasting as well as Button's McLaren was on the tyres. Vettel was back into the pits on lap 34 and came back out in traffic in tenth place, and it was no surprise when Fernando Alonso used his own pit stop on lap 38 to leapfrog Vettel for position on track.
Button had been looking comfortable out in the lead and virtually romping away with the race, but now that Alonso was released into second place it was clear that Ferrari had other ideas. Fernando started to tear into Jenson's lead, and lap by lap the gap started to disappear. By the time the race got down to the final half dozen laps the lead was almost completely gone and Button was having to floor it and set fastest laps just to keep himself out of the DRS activation zone that could spell doom for his hopes of coming out of Japan victorious.
It was a close-run thing and a real nailbiter, but Button did it - and crossed the finish line to claim the chequered flag in first place. Alonso came in second place, while Vettel had been shepherded to third place with the help of team orders ahead of a compliant Mark Webber who had popped into fourth place after the final pit stops ahead of Hamilton, Schumacher and Massa. That gave the world champion the necessary points he needed to make him unbeatable in this year's drivers' world championship: Button may have won the battle of Japan, but Vettel had emerged well and truly triumphant in the war of 2011.
Button's finish was slightly tarnished when the McLaren then immediately pulled over and stopped at the end of the pit lane exit, Button climbing out and running back to the McLaren garage rather than joining Vettel in a celebratory lap of Suzuka to take the acclaim of the crowd. Whether Button was nursing a problem or simply ran out of fuel wasn't immediately clear, but hopefully there won't be any sanctions against Button or McLaren over it.
In fact there had been no penalties imposed during the afternoon despite a number of potentially controversial incidents - starting with that move by Vettel on Button at the first corner. There was also no action over the Hamilton/Massa clash, or for contact between Mark Webber and Michael Schumacher just before the safety car came out, which caused Webber to run for the rest of the race with front wing damage. There was also no action taken over a side-by-side drag race down pit road between Kamui Kobayashi and Nico Rosburg on lap 25.
While the tyre wear had been a matter of concern (and cause of criticism after the Saturday qualifying session was dominated by teams trying to conserve a vital extra set of unused tyres for the race), the Pirelli compounds certainly spiced up the race as the difference between medium and soft tyres coupled with the performance fall-off led to a fascinating series of battles throughout the field during the hour and a half-long race, as drivers first got the benefit of fresh rubber and then had to cope with deteriorating handling as the stint wore on.
Japan's Kamui Kobayashi treated us to some trademark moves on rivals like Jamie Alguersuari through the hairpin much as he did last year - but fortunately this time without the clumsy contact to go with it. However, the local hero suffered from a poor start and ultimately could only manage 13th place, while his Sauber team mate Sergio Perez overcome a horrible bout of 'flu to pull off some lovely overtakes of his own on his way to eighth place.
Kobayashi himself was also on the receiving end of a stonking move from Adrian Sutil on lap 45 through the 130R corner, but both drivers were unable to hold out ahead ahead of a thrilling three-way battle between Nico Rosberg, Paul di Resta and Vitaly Petrov. Petrov pulled off a series of moves to finish in ninth ahead of Rosberg, while the two Force Indias lost out in the shuffle and finished 11th and 12th ahead of Kobayashi.
There was only one retirement during the race, which came on lap 12 when Sebastian Buemi ended up in the gravel through the S-curve shortly after a pit stop that had not secured the right front wheel in position.
Understandably, most of the attention during the race had been on the battle for the race lead and the championship battle, and as the sun set over Suzuka it had proved a most rewarding outcome all around: a great win for Button, an impressive show of form for Alonso - and of course, a second successive world championship for Vettel. There really had been something for everyone in Japan, and especially for the Japanese fans who had welcomed the F1 roadshow into town with such evident enthusiasm and joy after such a difficult year for the country.
The drivers' title might be a done deal and the constructors' battle pretty much a foregone conclusion, but the fight for race-by-race victories will continue as hard and fast and entertaining as ever, commencing with next week's Grand Prix of Korea.