Jenson Button showed exactly why he is the world champion when he turned in a racing masterclass to win a drama-packed Australian Grand Prix yesterday. And he admitted his victory at Melbourne's Albert Park had come earlier than expected with his new McLaren-Mercedes team and a car that was not thought capable of challenging the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari.
"I thought it would take longer than this," said a delighted Button. "A lot depends on what sort of car you come out of the box with. "I don't know in general pace where we would stand but that is not all racing is about. It is also about strategy, thinking and conserving. We did it correctly today and we came away with a good victory. This is very special and whatever happens over the next few races, this means a lot to me."
The world champion's tactical decision to be the first driver to switch to slick tyres proved inspirational. Button, 30, was running in seventh in damp conditions in the early laps with the whole field scrabbling for grip on their intermediate tyres because of a brief shower before the race. But things changed dramatically for Button as he told his team he was coming in for slicks, even though he had doubts about the wisdom of his bold decision.
"There was a dry line but a few places were wet," he said. "When I went into pits I thought it was a catastrophic decision as it was wet in the pitlane but once I got up to speed it was pretty good. I was able to put in some laps and overtake a few cars. It was the right call - I'm very happy to have made it." Button skated off at turn three on his out-lap, but survived the scare on cold tyres and once he was up to racing speed he was able to exploit the developing racing line and when the rest of the field pitted he moved up to third, before out-braking Robert Kubica's Renault to take second on lap nine.
Button could do little about the Red Bull-Renault of Sebastian Vettel though. The German had led from the start and despite staying out too long before changing to dry tyres he held on to his lead. He had been desperate to back up Red Bull's qualifying domination with a race win, but, as in Bahrain, was denied by technical problems. At the season opener it had been a spark plug issue, here it was a brake problem which caused the Red Bull to spin off on lap 26.
Vettel said: "There was nothing I could have done and I lost the car. It's a shame - I think we had the race under control even though the conditions were difficult." Having made his own luck with his early tyre stop, Button enjoyed his slice of fortune as he inherited a lead that he would hold until the end. On pure pace he was not the fastest man, but tactics and smart driving saw him finish first for the eighth time in his career.
Second place went to Kubica, who drove superbly early on to make up positions from ninth on the grid. The Ferraris were third and fourth. Felipe Massa ran at the front all afternoon, but was unable to pass Kubica, while Fernando Alonso recovered from a first -corner spin to get enough points to retain the championship lead from his teammate. The other drama on the first lap came when Kamui Kobayashi's BMW Sauber tagged the back of Sebastien Buemi's Toro Rosso. He lost downforce as his front wing broke off and ploughed into Nico Hulkenberg's Williams-Toyota. The incident eliminated all three.