From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.42 :: Oct. 17, 2009
To put it simply, the equations aren’t all that complicated for Jenson Button (85 points, with two races to go). If the championship leader has to slam the door on his two principal challengers, Rubens Barrichello (71 points) and Sebastian Vettel (69 points), and sew up the World Championship crown in the penultimate race of the season — the Brazilian Grand Prix on October 18 — he needs to finish on the podium; or score four points more than Barrichello or hope that Vettel and Barrichello don’t finish higher than fourth.
Hobbling to championship glory doesn’t beseem a Formula One champion. But if Button must, for reasons beyond his control, putter about for those points that would install him as the 2009 World Champion, he only needs to go back in time to the 1982 season — Button was barely a year old then — to draw some inspiration.
It was a season of gratuitous politicking and avoidable tragedies, no doubt. Gilles Villeneuve of Ferrari died in an accident during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix, while Riccardo Paletti of Osella Squadra Corse was killed in a crash during the Canadian Grand Prix. And during qualifying for the German Grand Prix, Villenueve’s team-mate Didier Pironi was crippled by an accident that put him out of Formula One forever. But the year 1982 was also a season of intrigue and excitement as 11 different drivers took the chequered flag in a calendar of 16 races. Williams-Ford’s Finnish driver Keke Rosberg, with just one victory under his belt, held on to his slender lead to win the championship by five points from McLaren-Ford’s British driver John Watson.
Unlike Rosberg, Button has a cushion of a 14-point lead over his Brawn Grand Prix team-mate Barrichello. But given the kind of attack he has had to face from Vettel and Barrichello, the British driver could soon be smoked out of his comfort zone if his efforts don’t go beyond making just a points finish in the next race in Brazil. And the 2007 season, where Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen cancelled out a 17-point deficit with victories in the last two races to snatch the World Championship from under Lewis Hamilton’s nose by one point, should strike Button like cold water. Didn’t they say to be forewarned is to be forearmed?
Button amazingly has a different take on the situation. “It is about not making mistakes, that is the most important thing. I go to Brazil positive and looking forward to the challenge,” the Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying.
A driver, who is not only a championship leader but also has the most number of wins in the season, snaffled in a tricky situation as Button is, is quite perplexing. “A monster of a car, perfect, outrageous, the best I have ever driven,” was how Button sang paeans to his Brawn GP car after winning six of the first seven races this year. The man who showed glimpses of his brilliance while winning his first Grand Prix in Hungary in 2006 on a dark, rainy day at Hungaroring seemed to be coming into his own this season. And Ross Brawn, the head of Brawn GP, doffed his hat to his ace driver, “He’s really showing that he’s the driver I was told he was.”
But midway into the season, beginning with the British Grand Prix to be exact, the wheels of Button’s campaign began to come apart. The problem, initially, was tracked down to the BGP001’s inability to work up the required temperatures to its tyres in order to be competitive. Later, the car struggled with problems pertaining to its balance. And when these were sorted out, mistakes in qualifying did the Brawn GP team, particularly Button, in.
For instance, at the Japanese Grand Prix, where Button was expected to seal the championship, the Brawn GP driver was docked five places — so was his team-mate Barrichello — for speeding despite the yellow flag during the qualifiers. Banished to 10th place on the starting grid — Barrichello had to start fifth — there was no way Button could match Vettel’s Red Bull that was tearing up laps almost a second faster than the other cars.
The early highs, when he won six of the first seven races, followed by a dismal run in the second half of the championship — Button has had only one podium finish in this phase so far, while Barrichello has managed three, including two wins, at Valencia and Monza — have, without doubt, eroded Button’s credibility to some extent. Some are of the view that he just doesn’t have the head to finish off the season in front, while BBC’s F1 analyst Martin Brundle says that he is “tightening up in the car.”
David Coulthard, a former Grand Prix driver and a friend of Button, wonders if the pressures of winning the title this year have impacted Button psychologically. “Perhaps he has developed something akin to the yips in golf, but he is certainly not the fluent force of the early season,” writes Coulthard in his column in the Daily Telegraph.
Strange are the ways of Formula One buffs. It’s baffling that whenever Button does well, it’s his car and crew that are applauded — as was evidenced during the first half of the season — but whenever he falters he is singled out for censure. Perhaps this has something to do with Button’s personality. One must not only be a champion but also seem like one.
Going into the last two races of the season, Button’s greatest threat could be from within his team. In other words Barrichello, the man who is still seething over his being reduced to the status of a second driver to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari and desperately wants the F1 pennant to prove to the world that he belongs to best, only the best.
The 37-year-old Brazilian has performed better than his team-mate in the last eight races, scoring 36 points to the latter’s 24, and this must be weighing heavily on Button’s mind. In almost every race since the British Grand Prix, Button appeared to be competing against Barrichello rather than the field upfront.
The third driver in the hunt, Vettel, has vowed to “fight until the end, until the last breath”. The 22-year-old German will be running on his last engine — he has already used up seven of the eight engines allotted to each driver, while both Brawn GP drivers are only into their seventh power plant — but believes he can beat both Button and Barrichello to the title. “It is very simple for me. It’s head down, maximum attack, win the races. There is nothing more I can do. The stakes are getting higher. I will do everything I can,” he says.
The F1 season is entering a fascinating phase. Whatever Brawn GP’s rivals might say about Button’s chances — they paint a grim picture of the team’s task of having to focus on two drivers unlike Red Bull which has to only nurture Vettel in the last two races — the 29-year-old British driver looks a cinch. After all, it isn’t easy for even the classiest of drivers to overturn the kind of lead that Button has over his two main challengers, especially with only 20 points left to be won.
Brawn GP has a major responsibility in making sure that both Button and Barrichello are given a fair chance for a shot at the title. This would ensure a healthy competition between the two drivers, obviating the danger of Button and Barrichello trying to overreach themselves and shunting one another out in the process, thereby unlocking the door for the brilliant Vettel.
It wouldn’t be wise for Button to leave things late; he has to go flat out for victory in Sao Paulo. For one who is as immensely talented as Button is, it isn’t enough if he wins the championship, it’s important he wins it like a true champion.
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