IT WAS his 200th grand prix and, in one humdinger of a race, Jenson Button made it a fairytale, winning for the 11th time, five years to the race after his first victory.
“I’ve got very good memories of 2006,” he had said going into the weekend on the back of two consecutive retirements. “Obviously it’s a long time ago now but it’s the perfect place for me to have my 200th race. The last couple have been a bit difficult in terms of not finishing, so hopefully we can have a good result here on such a special weekend.”
He could not have asked for more, and ran from his McLaren afterwards to embrace his girlfriend, Jessica Michibata, and his father, John.
The race had turned in his favour on the 47th lap, when he had come across team-mate Lewis Hamilton recovering from a spin, which cost him the lead he had held from the fifth lap. But it owed much, as so many of Button’s wins have recently, to a smooth drive and a canny tyre-choice in demanding conditions.
Pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel led the first four laps on a track made super-slippery by drizzle, but the German was under constant pressure from Hamilton, who had started alongside him on the grid. The Englishman pushed ahead on the fifth lap as the German ran wide going into Turn 2. Button then jumped Vettel when they switched to slicks on laps 11 and 12 as the track began to dry out.
For the next 29 laps, Hamilton seemed a shoe-in for the victory, Button riding shotgun and keeping Vettel under control. But Button already had good feelings.
“It’s very easy to say it now, but personally I felt at the end of that first stint that I had a chance as I was able to look after the tyres,” he said. “The car felt really good and I was close to Lewis when he pitted, and after that when I was catching him at a second and a half a lap at times, I knew I was in good shape. The car was working well, and it was a matter of time to try and get a jump on him towards the end, though it turned out a bit different to that.”
When Hamilton pitted on lap 40, he took another set of the super-soft compound Pirelli tyres, which almost certainly meant he would have to stop again, whereas Button and the Red Bull drivers (Mark Webber on lap 39, Vettel on 41) all went for the more durable soft-compound rubber, which offered them a much better chance of making it to the finish without another stop.
Then it began to rain a little again and suddenly Button was first, after Hamilton half-spun in a chicane on the 47th and lost what had been a 5.6sec lead.
“I came around a corner and saw Lewis facing the other way,” Button said. “I went to the outside of him and was about to lap Adrian Sutil at the same time. He saw me and was slowing to let me do that, but there was a yellow flag there so we both had to slam on the brakes and Lewis was able to turn his car around and was on my bumper again by the next corner.”
That ignited another nail-biting duel between the McLaren drivers. Button led on laps 47 to 50 before Hamilton snatched the advantage back on 51, but he and Button passed and re-passed one another several times before Hamilton rushed into the pits on lap 52 to change to intermediate tyres.
“I went wide and lost the lead again in Turn 2, passed him again then he passed me again,” Button said. “And then over the radio the team said pit for intermediate tyres. Then, by the second-to-last corner, they said Lewis is coming in, stay out, stay out. But I was never really going to come in for ’inters’, I didn’t think that was the right choice. We were struggling for grip but it wasn’t really slow enough for them, so for me it wasn’t right. The soft tyre was definitely the right choice and I was going to stick with that.”
It was a race-winning decision. As Button’s race came alive, Hamilton’s fell to pieces. The switch to intermediates tyres was rendered a mistake as the rain stopped and, like Webber, who had also opted for them, he rushed into the pits again on lap 54 for the soft-compound tyres he wished he’d taken earlier. But, worse than that, he was given a drive-through penalty for causing Paul di Resta to lose places avoiding him while he was recovering from his spin and, after serving that, he had to fight past Webber to salvage an eventual fourth place from a race he arguably should have won.
Button, meanwhile, sailed serenely on. As Vettel experienced minor brake problems in the closing stages, and Alonso chased them from a distance after making an extra pit call of his own for soft tyres, Button was able to stroke it home for a brilliant triumph that was in so many ways reminiscent of his breakthrough first, in similar conditions, here in 2006.
“That has to be one of my most enjoyable races ever,” he smiled. “It’s a great moment, and for some reason I seem to like these conditions. Don’t ask why. It was a great call by the team to put me on the soft tyre when they did, and they’ve worked so hard to produce the car we have now. It’s brilliant to go into the summer break on a nice high. And it’s good to have a couple of weeks of break because it’ll take me that long to get over tonight’s celebrations before I think of Spa and doing the same thing again.”
On a perfect day, Button had only one last request: “Please can I win one in the dry?“
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