Don’t write off the season just yet

Can this man stop Jenson Button?

Can this man stop Jenson Button?

Brawn’s rivals headed to Barcelona with high hopes of pegging back the flying BGP001s.

Instead Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello motored serenely to a straightforward one-two.

Button now has four wins from five starts. But I don’t think we should give up hope of seeing a close battle for the championship just yet.

Vettel’s masked potential

So far we’ve seen a five-race snapshot of a 17-round championship. The one driver who looks most likely to challenge Button for the championship – Sebastian Vettel – has been constrained by a mixture of misfortunes that I don’t think will persist throughout the season.

At Melbourne he was on course for a podium before that collision with Robert Kubica. The stewards chose (harshly, in my view) to hand down a ten-place penalty that compromised him for the Malaysian Grand Prix. That single moment at turn three in Melbourne spoiled his first two races.

Vettel then won commandingly in the rain in China. At Bahrain he had 6.5kg more fuel on board than Button and still out-qualified the Brawn driver. But the opening lap worked out as badly for Vettel as it could have done – Button squeezed past at the start and succeeded in placing Lewis Hamilton’s KERS-equipped McLaren as a buffer between them.

Surprisingly, a similar turn of events unfolded at Barcelona. This time Vettel didn’t out-qualify Button but he still lapped within 0.1s of him despite carrying 5.5kg more fuel. However, once again, Vettel got stuck behind a KERS car – this time Felipe Massa’s Ferrari.

This might all sound like I’m making excuses for Vettel’s performance and, to an extent, that’s true. But the point is this: these small problems have masked Vettel’s potential. Button will be very fortunate if he gets through an entire season without suffering similar frustrations.

A few drops less fuel in qualifying, a stewards decision that could have gone either way, and this championship could be looking very different.

The development race

It remains to be seen how well the teams will develop their cars over the course of the season. But there’s no mistaking that Red Bull designer Adrian Newey has an exceptional pedigree for developing cars to meet new regulations. He talked about how he enjoys taking on to big rules changes in a recent interview:

Previous to this year the biggest change we had of any significance was 2005 when the front wing was raised and the diffusers were restricted more, which was a sort of medium size change. Before that, you really have to go back to 1998 before we had the last largest change.

In 1998 his McLaren MP4/13 stomped all over the opposition. And in 2005 his MP4/20 won more races than anything else, suffering only from unreliability that, more often than not, was traced back to the Mercedes engine.

The RB5 has got off to a strong start and it’s set to get stronger – Newey has been working on an implementation of the ‘double diffuser’ which could be ready as soon as the next race at Monte-Carlo. In the wet, the car is already untouchable.

Brawn says its next major upgrade is not due until the German Grand Prix in July. The team has started to attract sponsorship and has a budget for the rest of the season, but you have to wonder whether they will be able to develop their car as quickly as their rivals.

As Damon pointed out yesterday with four wins and a third Button is off to one of the best starts to an F1 campaign ever seen.

But with 120 points still to be won and Vettel only 18 behind, this one is a long way from being over.

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74 comments on Don’t write off the season just yet

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  1. Jonesracing82 said on 12th May 2009, 12:27

    i hope Vettel is the champ this year, Button hasnt achieved anything in my view until this year when he has what i think at this point has been the best car all season, he had 1 good year in ’04 and thats it!
    some flashes in ’00 but nothing else, Vettel has been a contender for results in a crap car comparative to the top car, (last year)even won a race, is brilliant in the wet!
    he actually reminds me of Stefan Bellof who was sadly killed at the same point in his career as Vettel is at now, he was also young, German, brilliant in the wet (legend has it that Senna was catching Prost at Monaco ’84, not many ppl know that Bellof was catching the pear of them) both have a 6 letter surname, which is a useless stat but meh, Bellof was just too brave for his own good.

    • Terry Fabulous said on 12th May 2009, 12:55

      I am all for Button Jonesracing as he has shown enormous skill thoughout his career and has also shown the value of putting your head down and not whining when things don’t go your way.

      And he waved at me when I screamed out his name at turn 15 of the driver parade at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix!!!

    • Clare msj said on 12th May 2009, 13:41

      I wouldnt be at all against Vettel taking the title, but I would prefer Button to do it. Button has had far more good results than you suggest there, plus he has had darn awful cars in the last year or two. Vettel hasnt yet had a truly awful car, last year’s Toro Rosso was actually pretty decent. Honda was far worse last year than Toro Rosso was, and that Renault Button had in his second year wasnt the best of perfroming cars i have ever seen! on the flip side Button in 06 scored more points in the final half of the season than any other driver if I remember rightly just for one example of what Button has achieved in his career, as well as the examples you mentioned Jonesracing82.

      Of course Button will have had a couple of off years, this is his tenth year – if he had gone all ten without a bad patch I would have been amazed. Vettel is only relatively at the start of his career, and so far has had relatively decent cars, well exceptionally decent in this year’s case! In another eight years I would be willing to wager that Vettel has had an off year or two just like Button.

      No doubt that Vettel is a hugely talented driver, and the best of luck to him this year in his title challenge, but to say Button has achieved nothing until this year really is quite unfair. He wouldnt be leading the title like he is now if he wasnt a very talented driver. Its all well and good having a good car but if you cant get the best out of it you wont win the title, simple. Just as Vettel is showing how good he is the the Red Bull, so Button is in the Brawn. Both have cars which allow them to fight for the title, and both are taking the opportunity given to them, as with Barrichello if he doesnt carry on convincing himself the team are pro Button.

      I personally cannot wait to see Jenson and Vettel have some good scraps this year, as well as Barrichello – I really hope the title is close come the end of the year! Except i hope it falls Buttons way ultimately! it definetely shouldnt be written off in Buttons favour though, not at all – I beleive that the Red Bull is pretty much on Brawns level, Vettel has just been a little unlucky so far not to have fully raced them at the front.

    • todd said on 12th May 2009, 14:17

      yeah i’m with the other guys on this, button has shown potential from day one, he was the only challenger to the championship in i think 2004 where he finished 3rd behind the two ferraris, since then honda have been promising him a good car and he as been a team player and worked hard with the team, he’s had other offers from teams like renault, but turned them down waiting for this year and this car.

      he is fast and consistent and it’s showing now, he’s paid his dues and he deserves every point he gets.

      vettel is a firecracker, he has MANY years left in him to win more WDC’s than hamilton. he’s a fast bright kid with his head on his shoulders.

  2. Ninad said on 12th May 2009, 12:27

    Agreed!! Nice article Keith……………

  3. Damon said on 12th May 2009, 12:48

    You’re right, with points in Australia and no penalty for Malaysia Vettel would’ve been only a bit behind Button. I kinda forgot about it and I was ready to write the season off.

    What’s most important after those 5 races we’ve had so far, is that the Red Bull cars are on pace with the Brawns and constantly getting better. It can be anytime soon that with a major upgrade on the car it will be them who will be scoring 1-2 wins.

    The championship is still open, but I only wish more drivers/teams would come into the mix, because as of now, even if the Brawns have a bad race, they still come second.

  4. Vettel will win the championship this year as long as the Red Bull stays reliable. No question. Start heading to the bookies now, folks, and place your bets. Fitting KERS to the car (assuming it’s reliable, and with newey that can never be guaranteed lol), then that’s just like insurance for winning the championship. They will utterly dominate, no question.

  5. Damon said on 12th May 2009, 12:51

    (legend has it that Senna was catching Prost at Monaco ‘84, not many ppl know that Bellof was catching the pear of them)

    Yes, it’s a fact.
    Because it was actually Bellof who had the fastest lap of the race (!).

  6. Journeyer (@journeyer) said on 12th May 2009, 12:52

    And Keith, statistics aren’t on your side, either.

    Anyone who’s won at least 4 of the first 5 races have won the title every single time.

    And I don’t think the Red Bull is necessarily untouchable in the wet either – James Allen said that Brawn included an update in Barcelona specifically to help their car in wet conditions.

    As for luck – there’s a saying that goes, “you make your own luck.” There’s a reason why Michael Schumacher never seemed to suffer any misfortune in his title-winning seasons – Ross Brawn. Who owns the team right now? ;)

  7. Charlie said on 12th May 2009, 12:58

    Yes you have to say that Barwn’s excellent strategy, and Red Bull’s bad strategy (or bad luck) is the real story here. Why didn’t Red Bull let Vettel run longer in the second stint when he had more fuel?

    Plus, Button has a habit of making it stick when it matters, like on the third stint in Barcelona.

    History does point to a Button championship, but there’s still 12 races…

  8. Damon said on 12th May 2009, 13:06

    There’s a reason why Michael Schumacher never seemed to suffer any misfortune in his title-winning seasons – Ross Brawn

    Haha, putting it like this makes no sense.
    Not to suffer misfortune has been the key to every won championship ever – ’cause that’s why you win them in the first place.
    Ferrari lost the championship in 1997, ’98, ’99, ’05 and ’06 despite having Ross Brawn onboard.

    So all in all, they’ve won as many championships with Ross as they’ve lost. Heh :]

    • Journeyer (@journeyer) said on 12th May 2009, 14:04

      So all in all, they’ve won as many championships with Ross as they’ve lost. Heh :]

      Damon, look at where Ferrari was in 96 (before Ross came) and 97 (after he came). Sure, they lost the championships, but there was a marked leap in performance. Do you think they’d have improved that much if Ross weren’t around? There’s a reason Michael Schumacher personally invited Ross over to Maranello.

      Bottom line – in the times Ross and Adrian have faced off for championships, Ross has won 7 (95, 99, 00, 01, 02, 03, 04), Adrian has won 4 (94, 96, 97, 98). Ross lost some, but he won more.

  9. Hammad said on 12th May 2009, 13:12

    I think Vettel is a much better driver than Button. What’s Button done to show he’s exceptional? Win in the best car? Anyone can do that. Vettel has extracted a lot out of inferior cars, very similar to what Alonso and Schumacher do/did. Button simply struggles when the car isn’t good.

    However, I do believe that the season is starting to fall away from the rest of the field. Even if Red Bull improve, they’ll need bad luck to befall Button in a couple of races. Given the car’s reliability, I doubt that’ll happen…

    • Kovy said on 12th May 2009, 13:38

      I agree with this. Button is good, but not great. There’s half a dozen drivers on the grid that are equal or better than him. I’d put Button on the same kind of level as Massa and Webber, at the moment.

    • Scott Joslin said on 12th May 2009, 14:19

      I disagree Hammad, you ask how easy is it to win in the best car, but Barrichello is struggling! Are you saying that Schumacher and Senna are not worthy champions because each year they won they had the best car? Come on!

      Vettle has driven pretty good cars, he has certainly never driven one of the Honda’s from the last couple of years where as Button did and therefore deserves a decent car for once.

      Button’s driving style is also widely acclaimed – he is super fast and yet consistent and extremely good at bringing the car home for points. Sure he is not massively aggressive like a Hamilton or Kimi, but that is not always the best way to win a race or a championship for that matter as Alain Prost proves.

      Vettle on the other hand has been in cars that has the potential to win races very early on in his career, something that Button never had a chance to do. So please lets not discredit Jenson as a nothing driver just because you “like” Vettle. Vettle has thrown a lot of good points away this season as Keith points out in this article. Being drawn in the accident in Melbourne and then struggling to make his race strategy work in Bahrain and Spain because he could not find away past the guy in front of him despite having a faster car.

      As Keith points out this season isn’t over, but I don’t think that the drivers will have the single largest impact on the outcome of the title, the development race will win this. If the Redbull gets its double defuser and is able to get both cars to the front of the grid in qualifying and the race then we could see a closer 2nd half of the season.

    • Clare msj said on 12th May 2009, 16:19

      I also disagree Hammad, not just anyone can win in the best car – thats been proved time and time again when one guy from a team has done really well to take the title, and their teammate hasnt quite has the same success.

      I wouldnt describe Vettel as extracting a lot from inferior cars either. He did really well in the Toro Rosso last year no doubt, and took every opportunity when it came, but its was not the worst car on the grid by a long way – nowhere near the leagues of Honda. He has had relatviely good cars so far. And lets not forget he had more than one first lap incident in the early part of the season.

      Plus he has only been in F1 for two years, there is no way he can be compared to the way Schumacher and Alonso have extracted from inferior cars, especially when the ‘inferior’ car he had was not that bad a car.

      Just one point to note – in Bahrain Jenson lost a place to Hamilton off the line, which would have majorly compromised his strategy throughout the race had he stayed there. He knew he had to pass him to have any chance of winning and that is what he did the following lap – with a really quite impressive move on a car with KERS. In Spain, Vettel lost a place to Massa off the line which would majorly compromise his strategy should he stay there, 63 laps later he was still behind the KERS car. I’m not suggesting Vettel didnt do all he could to get past, but Button’s excellent driving this year is why he is leading the championship and not Barrichello in the same car.

  10. DGR-F1 said on 12th May 2009, 13:14

    It will need Vettel to actually win a couple more races before we can say it is an open season, and if there are a couple of races where the Brawn cars fail to get on the podium, that will also be leaving room for Alonso, Massa and even Webber to take the win instead, so it isn’t even looking like a two-horse race towards the end of the year, which is no bad thing.

  11. Damon said on 12th May 2009, 13:29

    It’d be great to have a stat showing championships won from the largest point deficit.

  12. Phil G. said on 12th May 2009, 13:56

    It’d be great to have a stat showing championships won from the largest point deficit.

    Raikkonen in 2007 comes to mind i guess.

  13. skova265 said on 12th May 2009, 14:03

    My opinion is that button only needs three or maybe four good races and a little bit of Vettels misfortune and he has the championship in his pocket. Massa and Hamilton both said that even if they start to win that they could not get the WDC because Brawn will always be in the points.
    I for one do not like Button to much because he dosen+t give out a carma, but for sure is a good driver that never had a winnig car like he has now. Vettel on the other hand looks like a fun and simple guy, and his approach with the media is much more truer and more simple.

  14. This might all sound like I’m making excuses for Vettel’s performance and, to an extent, that’s true.

    I think so. Sebastian needs to deliver some aggressive drives to show that he can win the championship, as Jenson done at Bahrein with car that doesn´t seems to be the best at that race on that moment.

    However, once again, Vettel got stuck behind a KERS car – this time Felipe Massa’s Ferrari.

    He could learn how to do that looking slightly to the old guy at his side in the garage. The man fought against Lewis at Malaysia and against Super Fern at Barcelona.

    Anyway there some talk about the way Red Bull did treat Mark Webber after his great race and podium in Spain Sunday:

    There were reports afterwards of a little acrimony in the RBR camp, and specifically that Helmut Marko – the man behind all Red Bull’s racing programmes and the mentor of Vettel – was not exactly happy that his boy had been demoted by his own team mate…

    — Adam Cooper

    James Allen at his blog has reported the same thing:

    Interesting cameo in the Red Bull area after the race where someone close to Mark Webber, who drove brilliantly to leapfrog Massa and Vettel and grab a podium, said, ‘I’m glad someone here is happy,” implying that the place was like a morgue because the chosen one had not got the anticipated result…

    — James Allen

    • hitchcockm00 said on 12th May 2009, 15:55

      Bad moods from Vettel’s camp are to be expected after a race like that.
      Imagine the frustration of spending the entire race stuck behind a much slower car, knowing you could be challenging for the win and that your driver just can’t find a way past. Then to pit on the same lap as the slow car as well!

      I’m sure it wasn’t bad blood aimed at Webber, just a general bad mood at a very frustrating drive from one of the driver.

  15. Journeyer (@journeyer) said on 12th May 2009, 14:06

    I like both drivers, but when I got their autographs in Malaysia, Button was a lot more affable – and we actually talked! If anything, he seemed more genuine than Vettel, but I’m sure that’s not the case.

    • Patrickl said on 12th May 2009, 17:23

      Yeah, button was the only driver who actually spoke to me too. I don’t collect signatures, but I do like to go and take a picture or see them in person or whatever.

      When you see these guys sign autographs, they usually don’t even look where they are signing. Button was actually having a laugh with the crowd.

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