Button gambles on strategy in Suzuka (Japanese Grand Prix pre-race analysis)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Jenson Button, McLaren, Suzuka, 2010

Jenson Button is hoping a different choice of strategy will help his cause in the Japanese Grand Prix. He is the only driver in the top ten starting on the hard compounds tyres.

But it’s not likely to trouble Red Bull, who have locked out the front row and appear to have a healthy performance advantage.

The start

Yesterday’s heavy rain will have neutralised much of the disadvantage that comes from starting off-line at Suzuka. The short run into a fast first corner means opportunities for passing away from the grid are limited, particularly for the front runners.

Last year the top six held their position at the start with the exception of Lewis Hamilton, who used his KERS to overtake Jarno Trulli.

Red Bull can’t afford to throw away the points on offer today having annexed the front row of the grid, so expect them to behave themselves at the start.

Alonso said after qualifying his first objective in the race is to find a way past Robert Kubica. That might not be too easy – the Renault has been very quick in a straight line since it got its F-duct at Spa.

Down in eighth, Hamilton needs to make progress and will have his sights fixed on picking off Rubens Barrichello, who has made some slow getaways in the Williams this year.

Strategy

Button has rolled the dice on strategy and will start the race on hard tyres – everyone else in the top ten is on the softs.

What the other cars do strategy-wise may be heavily influenced by Button’s performance. Can the Red Bulls build up enough of a gap to pit before Button does?

Button’s dilemma is that once cars behind him start to pit and change to the soft tyre, they will be quicker than him, meaning he is at risk of coming out behind them after he pits.

As ever, keep an eye on the gaps between the cars. Williams say a gap of 18.7 seconds plus the time taken to make a pit stop is needed to get out of the pits in front of another car.

The crucial question is how long he can afford to delay his pit stop, and whether he can overtake them on the track when he’s switched to the soft tyres. He does have the benefit of the McLaren’s excellent straight-line speed.

The most interesting dimension of Button’s gamble is that it puts him at odds with his team mate. It increases the chance that at some point one McLaren on a different strategy will catch the other. If so, will McLaren issue team orders?

The championship dimension will weigh heavily on the minds of the front runners. Sebastian Vettel knows he has to convert his eighth pole position into his third victory this year.

Mark Webber knows his closely championship rival at the moment, Fernando Alonso, is starting behind him.

But for McLaren, they need to find a way to take points off some of their rivals. Despite having taken their new rear wing off the MP4-25 they are quick enough to take on the Renault and Ferrari. The question is whether they can make it count on the track in the race.

Weather

No further rain is expected during today’s race. In the hours before the Grand Prix a few small showers to the north-west of the circuit have appeared but faded away before reaching the track.

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