Button: I thought I’d made a massive mistake

Jenson Button has admitted that at first he thought he had made ‘a catastrophic decision’ and a ‘massive mistake’ in becoming the first driver to pit to change over to slick tyres as the track dried in the 2010 Australian GP around Melbourne’s Albert Park – but it turned out to be an inspirational call that earned the defending F1 World Champion a sublime victory.

From fourth on the grid, Button’s race very nearly unfolded right at the start when he was caught on the inside heading into Turn One as Fernando Alonso came across on him, with the resultant contact pitching the Ferrari into a spin – but leaving the McLaren-Mercedes luckily undamaged. The incident did, however, drop the British star down to sixth place, just in front of team-mate Lewis Hamilton – and the pair would swap positions shortly afterwards.

What followed, though, was a superb display of intuition and feel for the conditions, as Button made the call to pit for slicks just seven laps in. At first, it looked like the 30-year-old’s audacity had backfired as he went shooting off-piste on his ‘out’ lap, but before long the #1 car was lighting up the timing screens, and once all of his rivals had followed suit and similarly changed tyres, the Frome-born ace was in second.

When Sebastian Vettel’s brakes failed just under halfway in, that became first – and by dint of his silky smooth manner and careful tyre-management, Button was able to nurse his car all the way to the end of the grand prix without needing to pit again, as others, Hamilton, Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher included, all came in for a third set of boots.

Never headed from the moment he took the lead, it was a combination of his famously effortless driving style and the bold early call that enabled Jenson Button to triumph once more at the scene of the victory that kicked his 2009 world title challenge into gear – and, who knows, might just have done the same again twelve months on.

“What a fantastic weekend!” he enthused. “It’s taken me a little while to get to grips inside the car and adapt inside the cockpit, but the team have been fantastic and have really welcomed me in – and from the first lap here, I felt comfortable. Qualifying was good – we weren’t on the pace of the front guys, we were five or six tenths off – but our race pace was better, and in these tricky conditions I think we made some very good calls.

“You might say we were lucky in some ways, but I think we just made the right calls – and that’s so important nowadays. It’s not just about speed; it’s about making the right calls, being consistent and conserving the car. It was a necessary move to pit for slicks. I think it’s a lot easier for the drivers to feel the conditions. The team can see it on TV and the clouds coming in and what-have-you, but we can feel what’s happening out on the circuit.

“I didn’t have a balance at all and was really struggling for grip on the Inters, and the rears were destroying themselves very quickly, so we figured it must be time for dries. I’d lost a couple of places, so I thought ‘let’s get in and stick the slicks on’ – there was a dry line, though a few places were a little bit wet. When I entered the pit-lane, though, I thought I’d made a catastrophic decision and I feared it was a massive mistake on my part because it was soaking wet there – and when I left the pits, I went off the circuit and just thought, ‘Oh no!’

“I got to grips with it pretty quickly, though, and soon started to feel really good in the car – and once I got it going and up-to-speed after my little ‘off’ at Turn Three, the pace was pretty good. I was able to put in some good laps and overtake three or four cars when they stopped to put slick tyres on. It was the right call, and I’m very happy that I made it. I caught up behind Sebastian, I conserved the tyres, I built a useful gap and we came away with a victory.

“I want to say a massive thank-you to the whole McLaren-Mercedes team – they’ve done a brilliant job. To not only be on the podium, but to be on the top step, after just two races is amazing. I don’t know what to say really – it’s very difficult to put it into words. It’s a very special feeling and we’ll take a lot from this. This victory means so much to me. A grand prix win in a McLaren – sounds good, doesn’t it? Right now, I just want to run around and scream! It’s just the most amazing experience.

“It’s crucial to get the big points when perhaps we don’t have the out-and-out pace – these are really important points to us. Now we’ve really got to get our heads down and hopefully turn up in Malaysia next week with an even better car. I feel that I’m just building in confidence, and hopefully when we get to the next race we can do something similar, because this feels too good.”

Button’s ‘brave’ performance drew warm words of praise from McLaren-Mercedes team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who confirmed that the idea to change tyres so early had come entirely from the driver – and who paid tribute to a ‘fantastic performance’ from a man whose chances many had unjustly written off even before the season got underway.

“It was just a fantastic, fantastic race by Jenson,” the Englishman enthused, “a drive truly worthy of a world champion. He showed extreme tactical acuity and supreme strategic responsibility by personally electing to make the early call from intermediate to dry tyres, a move that moved him ahead of the pack and laid the foundation for this victory. We said ‘you make the call’ and he got it spot-on. It was his bravery that made that call.

“He then drove with incredible intelligence and impressive maturity to maintain a consistent gap at the front, altering his car’s settings in order to best look after the tyres during the extremely long second stint. It was, in all ways, a faultless victory.

“It was a great call, just a great drive and a really, really fantastic result. You can’t always get every result you want, but this was a fantastic result for the team and everyone has worked very hard for it. We’ve had a tough start to the year, but we knew we were going to win some races and I’m so glad we won this one. This afternoon’s race was an absolutely perfect showcase for Formula 1, and amply demonstrates that this sport will always surprise, thrill and enthral us in many, many ways.”

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