Pressure. On occasion, the best know how to deliver it in spades, while sometimes the best can crack under it. The Canadian Grand Prix was no different.
It was a race that could so easily have belonged to Sebastian Vettel, only for McLaren’s Jenson Button to steal it from right under the German’s nose.
But like everyone else, Button had to wait a very long time for it all to happen.
Delaying the Inevitable
Button – starting from the fourth row – didn’t make an instant jump; in fact, no one did. Slight rain had been forecast for the race, but come 1pm in Montreal, it had become a deluge.
With safety in mind, the Grand Prix started under the safety car, neutralising the field from the get go – by the time the safety car had pulled in, four laps had passed.
Vettel – starting from yet another pole – launched away from the pack with only Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) in his mirrors. Alonso’s challenge was shortlived – the Spaniard, frustrated by a lacking Ferrari, fell toward teammate Felipe Massa (3rd).
Behind Massa was Red Bull’s Mark Webber, until a punt in the opening turn from Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) spun the Australian down to 14th.
Hamilton lost out too, falling to 7th behind Mercedes duo Nico Rosberg (4th) and Michael Schumacher (5th).
Button too got in on the action. Having passed the recovering Hamilton to 6th, Button was quickly gobbled up by his fellow McLaren man, only for Hamilton to lose out to Button again following a brief battle with Schumacher at the hairpin.
The silver fight came to a controversial end at the start beginning of the eighth lap. Seeing an opportunity to retake 6th spot, Hamilton closed to the inside of Button on the start / finish straight, only to find the door closed.
The most awkward of glances against the pitlane’s outer wall and Hamilton’s day was done. The 2008 World Champion dragged his car around to turn five, abandoning it as the field streamed by. Safety car.
“I touched Mark’s [Webber] car after he braked a bit early into the first corner. He left me enough room, but I touched the inside kerb and understeered into him.
After I fell back, he [Jenson] outbraked himself into the final chicane and got a poor exit, so I was able to get a good run on him. It felt to me like I was halfway alongside him down the pits straight – but, as he probably hadn’t spotted me, he continued moving across on the racing line. There was no room for me, so I hit the wall.”
Sensing a little change in the air, Button made for the pits for intermediate tyres, leaving him 12th in the pack. That became 15th on the lap 14 – having sped under the safety car start, Button was slapped with drive through penalty.
Meanwhile, with wreckage building up in his mirrors, Vettel drew out a five second lead over Alonso, only to have his advantage disappear. It mattered little – as the green flags flew again (lap 13), Vettel jumped into a solid lead again.
Progress and then… Stop!
A long way behind, both Webber and Button were busy making progress, as the midfielders provided fruitless challenges.
From the lower midpack, Webber carved his way up the order, claiming 9th by the restart and 8th a lap later as he dispatched Vitaly Petrov’s gripless Renault.
One pass on Nick Heidfeld (lap 17) gave Webber another position and that was to become 4th as Alonso and both Mercedes drivers pitted for intermediate tyres on laps 18 and 19.
Already on intermediates, Button was scything through the field. Already 11th by the lap 15, the 2009 World Champion swept by Paul di Resta (lap 18), Petrov (lap 19).
Then the clouds opened once again, turning into a monsoon in a few short seconds. Suddenly on the wrong tyres and the wrong strategy, Button stopped for a set of wet Pirelli’s dropping him back down the order to 11th.
Faced with no visibility, the safety car returned and as luck would have it, Vettel stopped for wets before the pace car could catch him. For the reigning champion, this was more luck and a free pitstop – for the rest of the field, it was just another woe.
Massa, the last of the front runners to pit, slotted back into 3rd place.
Not all were disappointed though – in fact, Sauber seemed happy with the canny hand they had been dealt.
The C30 – famously soft on the Pirelli rubber – gave an opportunity for the Swiss squad to leave Kamui Kobayashi out on his original set of wet tyres, bringing the Japanese runner to 2nd place, while the others scrambled.
Kobayashi’s Sauber teammate, Pedro de la Rosa (9th) applied the same strategy, as did Heidfeld (4th), Petrov (5th), di Resta (6th) and Timo Glock (15th, Virgin).
It worked out even better for the half-dozen. Come the 25th lap, the safety car slowly pulled up at the top of the start / finish straight where red flags were being waved.
The race was stopped. For two hours.
Sliding to a halt, several instantly regretted recent strategy choices – having just changed tyres, Webber (7th), Alonso (8th), Button (10th), Rosberg (11th) and Schumacher (12th) all looked on as those around them availed of new Pirelli’s with no penalty.
Any advantage they may have had vanished – under red flag conditions, all drivers changed to the most appropriate tyres and when the race eventually did recommence, the road ahead was muddled with opposing machinery.
Come 3.50pm in Montreal, it would be Bert Maylander that led the pack around for nine laps in the safety car.
Debates raged from the various pitwall and the as to how long the field needed to be held behind the Mercedes road goer – with the heavy rain now a memory, clear racing lines had developed. This race was ready to go.
That is unless you were Heikki Kovalainen. Having waited out the rain delay, the Finn’s Lotus suffered a driveshaft failure on lap 29 – on a day when a topsy-turvy score was possible; Kovalainen would not be there to claim reward.
Virgin’s Jerome d’Ambrosio on the other hand was just making life difficult for himself. Having pitted under the safety car on lap 34, the Belgian took a drive through penalty for changing to intermediates before the being cleared to do so.
As the green finally flew come the 35th tour, the sun was beginning to show its hand, as Vettel sprinted away from Kobayashi and Massa.
Indeed the track had dried so much, that the field began to stop for intermediates almost immediately after the restart, most notably Button (lap 36) and Alonso (lap 37).
So desperate were the Ferrari team to get Alonso onto the shallower tyre, they queued him up behind Massa in the Ferrari box – it would put the Spaniard just ahead of Button as the order filtered out.
Button, his tyres already up to temperature, needed to be clear of the sluggish Ferrari dived down the inside of Alonso at turn four, only for the door to close as the apex tightened. Inevitably, the pair clashed, leaving Alonso beached on the kerb and out of the race and Button with a puncture.
That should have been it for the McLaren driver as the remaining runners streamed by – yet Alonso’s stranded car brought out another safety car, essentially saving Button’s race by bringing the field together again.
Once again Vettel used the emerging safety car to secure another free pitstop – everything was going the German’s way.
Another stop for Button (his fifth) pinned him to 21st place, yet the McLaren ace’s day was not finished. Not by a long shot.
Tearing Through the Order
The yellow was short (four laps), with the on again at the beginning of the 41st lap – a steaming Button was on it.
Slicing through the backmarkers brought the McLaren driver to 15th by lap 44, then 12th less than two tours later – aided slightly by Sutil receiving a drive through for overtaking under the safety car. Sutil’s day would only get worse – an early switch to slicks saw the Force India man lose grip and clip one of Montreal’s walls. Out!!
Di Resta in the other Force India also gave Button a helping hand – the Scot clouted the rear of Nick Heidfeld, crippling his front wing; an action that would earn di Resta a drive through several laps later.
For a time, Button found himself staring at a battle for 10th between Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso) and Pastor Maldonado (Williams), with the Toro Rosso man leading the group.
While they squabbled, Button became decisive, taking both on the 49th tour to bring him into the top ten. One final stop for slick tyres three laps later would prove to be another game changer.
Schumacher was also barging his way back up the order. From 12th at the lap 26 restart, the veteran dragged his Mercedes up to 7th by lap 39 thanks to being the first to (legally) switch to intermediates.
Finding traction in places where others dreamed it existed helped Schumacher pass Webber (lap 42) and Heidfeld (lap 45) to take 4th, once di Resta had also departed.
The Mercedes driver was soon pulled up to the epic Kobayashi / Massa battle for 2nd.
With a large portion of the race, Kobayashi was beginning to struggle on his Pirelli’s and sensing this, Vettel – out front alone – saw no reason to push too hard.
Massa, meanwhile, was giving it all he had, but the Sauber man had him covered all the way – neither, however, gambled on Schumacher’s guile. Come lap 50, Schumacher was nearly three seconds behind the pair. One lap later, he had taken both of them.
Admittedly, it took an error from Kobayashi to pave the way for the seven-time Champion, but opportunities are there to be taken. As Kobayashi held Massa off through the turn 8/9 chicane, both lost traction in the fight – and Schumacher sailed through.
By now, the rest of field was beginning to pour in for slicks. The biggest beneficiary (other than Button) was Webber.
The Australian lingered around 6th place for much of the second race in a Renault sandwich (behind Heidfeld and ahead of Petrov) – his KERS-limited Red Bull simply lacked traction out of the necessary corners to make daring moves.
Having changed two-three laps earlier than Kobayashi, Massa and Heidfeld was all Webber needed to assume 3rd just behind Schumacher – soon a new battle was to unfold.
The Red Bull would face the same issues as before – Schumacher, with his superior traction, kept Webber firmly in his silver mirrors.
Massa, meanwhile, took himself out of the equation four corners after his move to slicks.
Attempting to lap Narain Karthikeyan’s Hispania, the Brazilian dipped onto the still wet off-line, pitching his Ferrari into the barrier. Another change for a new front wing would see Massa fall to 12th.
On the other hand, Vettel took a nice, easy stop; changing tyres one last time, as the field fumbled and fought over each other behind him.
Surely, this was another victory for the reigning champion…
Yet Button continued to advance and like Webber, the McLaren ace also jumped several cars at the final stop – so many in fact that once the order settled, Button was 6th and chasing Heidfeld (5th) and Kobayashi (4th); now some 20 seconds adrift of Vettel.
Whereas Button was clearly on top of his McLaren and Heidfeld just keeping with his Renault, Kobayashi was struggling in his Sauber.
The Renault – a good car (but not good enough) – gave Heidfeld enough to tease Kobayashi, but little more. Button was having none of it, quickly dispatching the pair of them on lap 55 to take 4th, all the while still gaining on Vettel.
Within a lap, Button had taken 2-and-a-half seconds out of the Red Bull lead.
Just as it seemed the race could not get any more dramatic, another safety car emerged to clear up a debris strewn Renault, while in the turn 3 escape road, a fuming Heidfeld looked on.
It was a simple crash – Heidfeld closed on Kobayashi in turn 2, too much so, clouting the rear of the Sauber hard. The Renault, with a wounded front wing carried on only a few hundred feet, before the wing folder under the wheels, spreading shards of carbon fibre everywhere.
In an instant, it halted Button’s charge, but also brought him fully into the fray up front – as long as he could clear Schumacher and Webber…
Indeed Button was instantly “on it” from the green at the start of lap 61, while Vettel scurried away.
Schumacher – his attention drawn away from the leading Red Bull – concentrated on Webber, while Button stalked both. Webber did pas Schumacher, but only temporarily, having cut the final chicane – the place was handed back in order to avoid a penalty.
The Red Bull made another mistake at the same chicane on lap 64, only this time he was punished by Button, who shot through into 3rd, before doing the same to Schumacher one lap later.
By the 67th lap, Webber was finally close enough to bring his DRS into full effect and take 3rd from Schumacher.
With the McLaren in the clear, Vettel led by 3.7 seconds with five laps remaining – no problem, right? In most situations, that gap would be enough – but this clearly wasn’t a normal day.
The clearly faster Button closed to 1.5 seconds by lap 67, then 1.3 seconds a lap later and 1 second exactly the lap after that. With two laps remaining, the DRS was now becoming a very real factor.
As the pair started the final lap, they were separated by mere tenths. Vettel, seeing only silver and orange in his mirrors, defended hard, taking just the right line to hold Button off.
Through turn 1 and 2, he held the McLaren at bay and continued to look assured in the turn 3 / 4 chicane. Yet on the approach to turn 5, concentration slipped and with it, a wheel peered onto the damp stuff.
Vettel – his car suddenly an impossible machine – lost the rear of his RB7 briefly, catching it beautifully before the slide became too deep, but Button was already gone.
The victory was his – and as he crossed the finish line, the jubilation in the McLaren garage was obvious to all. A stunning drive and a stunning victory and one that will be remembered as once of the best in the sport’s history.
“I fought my way from last to first to win the race. To win a Grand Prix by getting one over on your rivals with a series of strong overtaking moves makes it even better. Races in changing conditions are always very tricky but I love it when you’ve got to search for grip on the track rather than knowing in advance where it is. I was a little bit fortunate today when Sebastian [Vettel] made a mistake on the last lap, but I think we deserved that bit of luck! I can’t stop smiling now!”
For his trouble, Vettel took 2nd ahead of Webber, but while the former was clearly disappointed to lose the race, Webber lost over 13 seconds in the final few laps, as he claimed yet another podium.
It was a case of so close, yet so far from Schumacher. The veteran trailed Webber across the line by only four-tenths, but a podium would surely have been a more worthwhile result.
“Having been in second place towards the end, I would obviously have loved to finish there and be on the podium again. But even if it did not work out in the very end, we can be happy about the result and the big fight we put in. A good strategy after the red flag made it possible, and I am very happy for our team.”
Following Heidfeld’s slight miscue, Petrov, who took 5th, secured Renault’s honour. The Russian had not had a spectacular race, but that matters little when solid points are on hand.
As dramatic as the leaders battle was, Massa and Kobayashi provided another battle at the end. After dropping to 12th following his front wing change, the Ferrari man calmly picked off Maldonado, Barrichello and Alguersuari amongst others to bring him to the rear of Kobayashi.
However, it would be daring last dash to the flag that separated them, with Massa piping Kobayashi to 6th by only 0.045 of-a-second.
Both Toro Rosso’s took points in the end with Alguersuari coming home 8th and Sebastien Buemi (a rather anonymous) 10th.
A late race coming together with Kobayashi would see Rosberg fall to 11th while his front wing crumbled.
The Mercedes pilot was less than three seconds shy of a point, but a clear thirteen seconds ahead of Sauber substitute Pedro de la Rosa (12th). The Spaniard had run well throughout, but a bump on his nose left de la Rosa dangling just outside the points.
Hispania ended the day in Canada with a big result. With the addition of the hot blown diffuser this weekend, Vitantonio Liuzzi quietly guided his F111 to 13th place, ahead of the Virgin pair, d’Ambrosio (14th) and Timo Glock (15th).
Narain Karthikeyan had crossed the line 14th, but a post-race penalty for hopping the final chicane late on dropped him to 17th. The sole Lotus of Jarno Trulli found himself elevated to 16th spot.
On what was a busy day, Force India’s Paul di Resta had climbed to 12th, but clipped the wall just prior to the end of the race, damaging his suspension too much to continue.
When it got going eventually, it was fabulous, but despite all the good racing this season, Vettel continues to pull out in the Championship – the German now has a commanding 60 point lead over Button, who has jumped to the runner-up spot.
Both Webber and Hamilton are there or thereabouts, but it’s looking like Vettel will need some horrid luck if he is to lose this title.
Race Rating: 5 out of 5
The Canadian Grand Prix (70 laps) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Button McLaren-Mercedes 4h04:39.537 2. Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 2.709 3. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 13.828 4. Schumacher Mercedes + 14.219 5. Petrov Renault + 20.395 6. Massa Ferrari + 33.225 7. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 33.270 8. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 35.964 9. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 45.117 10. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 47.056 11. Rosberg Mercedes + 50.454 12. de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari + 1:03.607 13. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 1 lap 14. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 1 lap 15. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 1 lap 16. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 1 lap (*20-sec penalty) 17. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 18. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 3 laps Fastest lap: Button, 1:16.956 Not classified/retirements: Maldonado Williams-Cosworth + 8 laps Heidfeld Renault + 13 laps Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 20 laps Alonso Ferrari + 26 laps Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 34 laps Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 62 laps World Championship standings, Round 7 Drivers: 1. Vettel 161 2. Button 101 3. Webber 94 4. Hamilton 85 5. Alonso 69 6. Massa 32 7. Petrov 31 8. Heidfeld 29 9. Schumacher 26 10. Rosberg 26 11. Kobayashi 25 12. Sutil 8 13. Buemi 8 14. Barrichello 4 15. Alguersuari 4 16. Di Resta 2 17. Perez 2 Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 255 2. McLaren-Mercedes 186 3. Ferrari 101 4. Renault 60 5. Mercedes 52 6. Sauber-Ferrari 27 7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 12 8. Force India-Mercedes 10 9. Williams-Cosworth 4