x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Jenson Button pressed for pace

The McLaren-Mercedes driver's Formula One title defence ends at Interlagos, the circuit where he clinched the title 12 months ago.

Jenson Button, unlike many of his rivals, did not make many mistakes during the season.
Jenson Button, unlike many of his rivals, did not make many mistakes during the season.

Jenson Button's Formula One title defence ended yesterday at Interlagos, the circuit where he clinched the title 12 months ago when racing for the Brawn GP team.

The Englishman struggled to balance his McLaren-Mercedes chassis during qualifying and a feisty recovery drive to fifth place - the same position that clinched him the championship in 2009 - was insufficient to keep him in the hunt going into next Sunday's finale in Abu Dhabi.

A brave face was put on any disappointment as he vowed to fight for the 2011 title.

"We just have to build on this for next year, I don't think there's a team out there stronger than us," he said post-race in Brazil.

Many believed Button might struggle this year, when pitched against a livewire teammate of Lewis Hamilton's calibre, but such scepticism did him a disservice. Button has always been quick and the clues to his pace have forever been manifest, even when he was saddled with midfield cars.

Time without number, he would start setting competitive times whenever a circuit was hit by rain - motorsport's great leveller.

His McLaren career began spectacularly, with two victories in the first four races - both beautifully judged in tricky, mixed conditions that favoured experience, clear thinking and a delicate touch.

That was trademark Button and it earned him an early lead in the 2010 world championship, but he has not won since the Chinese Grand Prix, in mid-April, and has steadily faded in the title contest.

During the second part of the season he has driven few truly strong races - the notable exceptions being at Monza, where he finished second, and yesterday at Interlagos.

Martin Whitmarsh, the team principal, admitted McLaren has had the third best car for most of the season. It has rarely been able to match Red Bull-Renault or Ferrari in terms of pure pace and all three teams have been engaged in a ferocious development race.

It can be tricky to fine-tune a constantly evolving chassis and Button does not share Hamilton's improvisational aptitude for driving around problems. Set-up issues rarely faze the latter: he can usually conjure a lap time from whatever he is given.

When the car is just right, Button can be borderline unbeatable - but the McLaren's sweet spot has all too often proved elusive and that has been his undoing.

Four of this season's five leading drivers have committed serious errors during the campaign's course, but Button - uniquely - has not made any.

He just has not been fast enough, often enough. His sense of humour, though, remains intact. On Saturday he was asked whether he was now committed to supporting Hamilton's title bid during the final two races.

"I'm not sure I can be much help to him from 11th on the grid," he said, "unless I slow down and wait for them all to come around…"

Despite the evaporation of his title hopes, Button insists he is satisfied with the way his first season as a McLaren driver has unfolded.

"It has been even better than I anticipated," he said. "I really feel at home here and that's a good sign for the future.

"A few weeks ago I still had a real chance of challenging for the world championship. If you'd told me that at the end of last year, when I was in the process of changing teams, I'd have been very happy."