SUZUKA //It is a common perception that Formula One's mid-race refuelling ban - introduced at the start of 2010 - has stifled the art of strategic innovation, but that does not always hold.
Jenson Button, the world champion, struck out on his own during yesterday's Japanese Grand Prix, but circumstantial details conspired to thwart his tactics. Unless the weather changes, the rules dictate that the fastest 10 drivers must start the race on the same set of tyres they used during qualifying - and making the right selection is always a compromise.
Should they opt for a hard tyre that promises greater consistency, or a softer alternative that provides superior short-term speed at the expense of durability? In the final stages of qualifying, drivers tend to bolt on the softest available Bridgestone compound, to get the optimum lap time possible, but Button tried a different approach at Suzuka. His McLaren-Mercedes felt more balanced on the harder tyre and that gave him added confidence. He planned to use them for a single, three-lap run during the final part in the hope that he would be able to generate sufficient tyre temperature to qualify on the second row, behind the dominant Red Bull-Renaults.
Although the circuit had been washed by rain overnight - and a clean surface leads cars to slide around, which compromises tyre performance - yesterday's hot temperatures caused a fresh layer of grip-enhancing rubber to be laid very quickly. Button's first qualifying lap was actually his best - and had he set off with fuel for one lap, rather than three, the weight saved would have been worth 0.2sec, enough to secure him third place rather than sixth.
His hope in the race was that rivals' softer tyres would swiftly wilt, obliging the leaders to pit and leaving him with a clear track. With grip levels having increased faster than anticipated, however, the softer tyre proved to be rather stronger than Button's strategy had hoped. "We were compromised from the start because we soon saw that the leaders weren't struggling as much as we'd expected," he said.
He led for 13 laps after the Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) made their tyre stops, but he was never far enough ahead to have any chance of making the podium and finished fourth. He was quick when he finally switched to the softer tyre - towards the end of the race, when grip levels peaked - but by then it was too late and it has left his title defence in a precarious situation with three races to go.
The potential effectiveness of a long first stint on hard tyres was underlined, though, by local favourite Kamui Kobayashi, who pitted at the same time as Button and then used the softer rubber to claw his way from 12th to a crowd-pleasing seventh in his BMW Sauber-Ferrari.