Saturday, 9 November 2013

2011 Canadian Grand Prix - Circuit Gilles Villeneuve

June 12, 2011

The Ferrari's undertray pivoted on the Turn 4 exit kerb - and so did the whole outcome of the race. Fernando Alonso had just left the pits in this crazy delayed event and it was crucial that he keep the advancing Jensen Button (McLaren), whose intermediate tyres were now up to temperature having stopped the lap before, behind. So they accelerated up to up to Turn 3 together, the red car and the silver one, neither man prepared to give way. As they touched inthe no-man's land where Alonso's outside line for Turn 3 would have become the inside of Turn 4, Ferrari right-rear against McLaren left-front, their destinies diverged.

Defining moment - Alonso's misfortune was Button's salvation.
Had the Ferrari merely spun rather than getting itself beached, there would have been no safety car and Button's long, slow crawl back to the pits on his punctures tyre and damaged nose while everyone else remained flat-out would have left this a lap down and that would have been that; a plucky drive back into the points if he was lucky, an awkward explanation of his earlier coming together with team-mate Lewis Hamilton. But out came safety car number three and so the pieces of Button's miraculous drive began to lock into place: two collisions, a puncture, five pitstops, a drive through penalty and rejoining dead last with half of the race gone. Unlikely circumstances for a victory, you'd have to say. But that one piece of luck combined with Button's magical touch in such changeable conditions, his calm head, that he was the only man able to get the slicks up to temperature on the menacingly narrow dry line, the McLaren's excellent mechanical grip, DRS (drag reduction system); all these things conspired and Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) became, for once, a victim.

We had to wait for this gem of a Grand Prix. Wait a very long time, a two hour gap after 45 minutes of interrupted running. Standing water, heavy spray and concrete walls meant the first start came under the safety car. racing underway at the end of the fourth lap, Vettel sprinting off as was so familiar during the 2011 campaign, the two Ferraris in his wake. Immediately behind, on the run down to Turn 1 and the Virage Senna, Hamilton's impatience drew him into an implausible attempt inside of Mark Webber (Red Bull) who tried to give him room, but that space funnelled them rapidly down to contact, spinning both, as Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Button and Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) passed by. Lewis was at least facing the right way and able to get going again in sixth. But Webber needed to spin turn and completed the lap in 13th.

Button got wide into Turn 3 and was immediately passed on either side by Schumacher and Hamilton. Next lap Hamilton tried for the outside of Schumacher into the hairpin, Michael seemed surprised to see him there, Lewis taking to the grass to avoid contact, getting onto the run-off, allowing Button to re-pass. Hamilton remained in touch with his team-mate and at the end of the seventh lap Jensen got a bit crossed up into the final chicane, making him very slow onto the start/finish straight and Lewis was upon him, catching, catching, trying to second-guess as he was neatly tucked up beneath the other McLaren's rear wing. He opted for the surprise move to the left - which certainly seemed to surprise Jensen as he eased the same way to take up the normal line for the approaching right-hand kink. Hamilton was pincered between the pitwall and Button's left-rear. Lewis' left-rear hit the wall hard and ricocheted him into Button who corrected a violent twitch. "What was he doing?" shouted Button over the radio. Lewis limped on until being told by the team to retire it as they could see suspension damage.

Jensen Button - doggedly fought on after a series of setbacks.
Hamilton's abandoned car triggered a safety car and Button used that as an opportunity to pit immediately for a go on the intermediate tyres. Further rain was holding off and a thin ribbon of a line beginning to form. This was the first time that the contemporary Pirelli wets had been raced, yet they seemed quite durable in such conditions but the track did now appear to be moving towards the intermediates, which would potentially be significantly faster.  Besides stopping at that point enabled a damage check to be made tot he car. Behind the safety car for four laps, Button circulated in 12th place and as racing got underway again, with Vettel sprinting away from the Ferraris everyone was watching Button's times very closely. But that information was delayed as Jensen had been called into the pits for a drive-through for exceeding the target speed during the safety car period. With the field still so bunched and the pit entry road before the speed limit line so fast, the penalty only cost him two places. Once past a couple of slower cars, Button began to fly on those inters.

Both Ferrari and Mercedes responded, bringing Alonso and Rosberg in from second and fourth respectively at the end of the 16th lap. Next time through Button was over a second faster than the leader, Vettel, who had the gap to Felipe Massa (Ferrari) out to over six seconds already. But there was a twist. The rain began to fall again. Red Bull and Ferrari realized it was better to keep Vettel and Massa out, still on their wets, but Mercedes stuck to their plan brought Schumacher in for intermediates.

On the 19th lap the heavens opened and the race once again went under the safety car, during which time the inters-shod Alonso, Rosberg, Schumacher and Button made corrective stops for wets, dropping them yet further down the order. Vettel, Massa and Webber stopped at this time too, changing their existing wets for new ones. After six laps under the safety car the deluge became yet heavier and the race was red-flagged. They lined up on the grid: Vettel, Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), Massa, Nick Heidfeld (Renault), Vitaly Petrov (Renault), Paul di Resta (Force India), Webber, Alonso, Pedro de la Rosa (Sauber), Button, Rosberg, Schumacher. A two hour wait ensued as the storm passed.   

FIA safety car - a record six appearances.
Nine laps behind the safety car - and with everyone therefore on full wets - laid the introduction for the spectacular second instalment of this race. As Bernd Maylander set the pack free at the end of the 34th lap, Vettel was again master of the restart and his advantage quickly ballooned as Kobayashi tenaciously fended off Massa and Heidfeld. Schumacher had peeled off into the pitlane as soon as the safety car came in, changing immediately onto intermediates. It was an inspired call, made by Michael himself. Button and Heidfeld followed suit on the following lap but everyone else was rather more cautious with Kobayashi, Massa, Petrov, Webber, Alonso and Rosberg staying out until the end of lap 36. Vettel's leading margin and strong pace encouraged Red Bull to keep him out for yet another lap.

Alonso was dropped behind Rosberg at the stops and now, as he accelerated back into the fray, he was being caught by Button on intermediates that were fully up to temperature and set on scything past. That's when they touched, leaving Alonso fatefully beached upon the kerb. Yet another safety car, it fifth appearance, allowed Button with his punctured tyre to get back without being lapped. Vettel took the opportunity to pit for inters and got underway again without losing the lead. Three laps later and the race was back on and Vettel was comfortably away from the squabbling Kobayashi and Massa. Button at this point was a solid last, having not even quite caught the tail of the pack as the safety car came in. 

So with 57 percent of the race done, Vettel led and Button was last. The various safety cars had repeatedly trimmed back Vettel's lead, which he would confidently pull out, only to have his efforts wiped away. This had kept him within Button's reach, unlikely though that it looked at this stage. Button was on inspired form too and soon scything through backmarkers still closely-packed from the safety car. Meanwhile Vettel was doing the perfect job too, pulling away from Kobayashi at around 0.5s per lap, ensuring that he was looking after his tyres.

On the 46th lap race control allowed DRS to be enabled, judging that visibility was no longer an issue. Button was by now up to 12th and only 20s off of the lead because of the safety car and the relatively gentle pace that Kobayashi's Sauber was effectively imposing on everyone else, as Vettel simply gauged the gap back to him. However, Kobayashi oversteered wide out of Turn 8, and Massa went to his right but was baulked and Schumacher went to the left, passing them both in one move, promoting him up to second in the process. 

Just as this was happening Webber, unable to find a way by Heidfeld pitted for the super-soft dry tyres. On his second flying lap he was in the 124s, 3s faster than the leader, by which time Button had stopped and made the change too. Schumacher, Massa and Heidfeld followed him in a lap later. Vettel, Kobayashi and the rest pitted for their super-softs on the 53rd lap. Vettel still led courtesy of his earlier margin, from Schumacher and Webber, with a sensationally fast Button, who's leapfrogged Kobayashi and Heidfeld by his earlier stop, catching the top three as a huge rate. With 15 laps to go he was just 9s off the lead. And fate would smile on the Briton again. On lap 55 Heidfeld slammed into the rear of Kobayashi and with carbon debris from the Renault all over the track, the sixth safety car was deployed, probably just the last little bit of fortune for Button, wiping out much of his deficit.

It took five laps for the mess to be cleared and upon the restart Vettel was again up and away as Schumacher and Webber squabbled. Five laps into this restart Webber attempted to go down the inside of the German at the chicane, locked up and had to go straight-on. This compromised his speed on the following pit straight allowing Schumacher to stay ahead and Button to pass him. Now Button was all over the Mercedes and on the following lap used his DRS, KERS and long seventh gear to simply drive by Schumacher long before they reached the braking zone.

Relentless - Button closes on Vettel in the final stages. 
There were five laps left and Vettel was just 3.1s ahead of the flying McLaren. "I was probably too conservative after that last safety car," said Vettel, "and didn't open the gap enough when I could. I was just trying to hold the gap tot he cars behind, but then I saw Jensen come through." Too late, as it were. Seb realised he could not afford to let the McLaren get within the 1s DRS trigger zone and so began to turn on the pace. He was suddenly lapping 2s faster than before, and yet still Jensen was closing him down as the race built to a stunning crescendo.

Still Button came. On the penultimate lap he was close enough for the DRS to trigger, allowing him to have a look into the chicane but Vettel held his line. That's how they headed into the final lap, prey and hunter. Into Turn 6, the pressure finally told as Seb's left rear slipped onto the damp line and in an instant was oversteering. He gathered it up with an angel's hands, but Jensen was through and gone.

"This was 90 percent Jensen and 10 percent car," said McLaren's team principal, Martin Whitmarsh. "He had the confidence in these conditions to push and that got heat into the tyres that was elusive to others and it was just a of virtuous circle. His skill, calm, confidence and smartness today was just fantastic. That will go down as one of the all-time great grand prix win," and it was impossible to disagree. 

Only one can win - superb performances from two great champions.

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