Judging Jenson’s championship chances

Jenson Button had the perfect start to the season when he took a dominant win in Australia.  His chances of a second world drivers’ championship crown looked rosy; his McLaren car had looked fast in pre-season testing, unlike in 2011, and Button’s race performance in Melbourne proved that McLaren were starting the season with the car to beat.  However, we’re now 11 rounds into the season and Button lies just seventh in the world drivers’ championship having failed to win again since the opening round of the season.  So, can the 2009 champion still finish on top of the pile at the end of the season?  Let’s look at his season so far and examine his chances.

By Ryan Bayona (Jenson Button) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As I’ve already mentioned Button looked strong in Australia.  He started second on the grid after being out qualified by his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, but performed better in the race than his fellow McLaren driver, who dropped back in the race and eventually finished third, with the two McLaren’s separated by the Red Bull Racing car of the reigning double world champion, Sebastian Vettel.  Given the result in Melbourne, Button would surely have felt that he would once again finish higher than Hamilton in the championship standings and that the championship was possible.

Indeed, if you had told Button, before the start of the season, that he would have won one of the opening three races of the season, that his team-mate would not win in either of those races, that he would have two podium finishes in those races and that he would also finish higher than his team-mate in two of those races, I’m sure that the Frome born driver would have imagined that he would be leading that championship at that point.  That proved not to be the case, though, as between his win in Australia and his second place in China, behind first time winner Nico Rosberg, came a disastrous race in Malaysia where, despite a front row grid slot, he finished out of the points in 14th position after clipping the HRT of Narain Karthikeyan during the race, damaging his front wing.

Still, after those opening three races of the season, Button sat second in the world drivers’ championship, behind his McLaren team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, who, despite not having yet tasted victory, had managed to be the model of consistency taking three podium finishes, with three third place finishes.  At this stage of the season, though, Button was just two points behind his team-mate in the championship standings, while now, at the mid season break before the Belgian grand prix, the gap to his team-mate is a hefty 41 world championship points, and the gap to the championship leader, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, is a massive 88 points.  Indeed, Alonso has amassed more than double the number of world championship points than Button.

So where did it all go wrong for Button?  After the opening three races, Button has generally struggled this season.  In the next six races of the season – Bahrain, Spain, Monaco, Canada, Europe and Britain – Button managed just three points scoring finishes, with a best result during that period of just eighth place in Valencia, adding a meagre seven world championship points to his total after the race in China.  In the same six race period, his team-mate, more than doubled his championship points total, despite some issues of his own, haven taken a brilliant victory in Canada and only failing to score once, in Valencia.

By Morio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The result in Canada was perhaps the most profound example of Button’s problems during this period.  While Hamilton qualified on the front row and took his first win of the season, Button struggled, qualifying in just 10th place and falling back during the race, finishing out of the points in 16thposition, a full lap down.  Button was struggling with the set-up of his car, and was unable to extract the same pace from his machinery as his team-mate who, up until the European grand prix, had scored points in every round of the season.

It didn’t help that McLaren were being out-developed at this stage of the season, with championship rivals like Red Bull Racing and Ferrari all making big development steps on their cars while McLaren appeared to be standing still.  This all changed at the German grand prix, though.  McLaren brought a big upgrade package to Hockenheim and it was Button that benefited from it rather than Hamilton.  For the first time in 2012, Button managed to out qualify his team, starting sixth, compared with seventh for this team-mate.  It was in the race, though, that Button really made his mark, leaping forward at the start of the race while Hamilton fell back a little.  Button eventually finished second, taking his third podium of the season, while his team-mate retired after having damaged his car following a puncture during the opening stages of the race.

However, at the very next race, in Hungary, the gains that Button had made over his team-mate in Germany were all but wiped away.  Hamilton was dominant all weekend, and particularly impressive in qualifying, easily taking pole position while Button qualified in fourth, over half a second behind Hamilton.  The race was even worse for Button as he was forced to watch from afar as Hamilton held off the challenge of the two Lotus cars to take victory, while Button himself fell back from his grid slot, eventually finishing sixth and seeing the half a second qualifying deficit to his team-mate being converted into a half a minute race deficit.

When Formula 1 returns after the enforced August break we’ll have a further nine races left to run.  As I’ve mentioned, Button is now 41 world championship points behind his team-mate, which means that the soonest that Button could overhaul Hamilton in the drivers’ championship is in Monza – round 13.  The chances of this happening, though, look slim.  Button would need to win in either Spa or Monza and finish on the podium in the other race to close the 41 point, while Hamilton would have to score only a couple of championship points over the course of these two races.  Given Hamilton’s form, this looks unlikely, although Button would argue, not impossible.

By Ryan Bayona (Flickr: _RYN4096) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s why Button has recently said that he does not expect his McLaren team to ask him to support Hamilton’s bid to win the world drivers’ championship while it is still mathematically possible for Button himself to win the title.  With 225 championship points still to play for, the title is far from a mathematical impossibility for Button.  But while the gap to his team-mate is certainly bridgeable in the next nine races, the gap to the world drivers’ championship leader, Fernando Alonso, looks an incredibly difficult one to overhaul.  The 88 point gap means that the soonest that Button could overtake the Ferrari driver in the championship standings would be in round 15, in Japan.  For this to happen, though, Button would need to win at least three of the next four races and finish no lower than third in the fourth, and hope that Alonso scores no more than two world championship points in the same four race period.

Given Alonso’s amazing consistency this season – he is the only driver to have won more than twice and the only driver to score points in each of the opening 11 races of the season – the possibilities of this happening appear to be extremely remote.  When you also consider that between Alonso and Button in the championship there are five other drivers – Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg – the possibility of Button taking the lead of the championship by Japan look even more remote.

Indeed, it would take an extraordinary collapse from all of these five drivers to see Button take the world drivers’ championship come the end of the season.  Of the drivers ahead of Button in the championship, only Raikkonen is yet to win this season, and with Lotus looking extremely strong in Hungary, and with their passive F-Duct/F-Duct DRS still to come in Spa, you wouldn’t bet against Raikkonen tasting victory before long.  Button has himself acknowledged the speed of the Lotus recently, stating “Lotus have been strong and I don’t think we have seen the best of them yet – they have a really good chance of winning races in the upcoming few races”.

Let’s not forget, too, four of the six drivers ahead of Button in the championship are former world drivers’ champions – with Webber and Rosberg being the odd men out – so they know what it takes to win the Formula 1 championship.

All of these factors stack up to make Button’s championship chances look increasingly slim.  Still, there is still a chance of the championship for Button, no matter how unlikely.  Button has said recently that “I personally feel that until I can’t win the championship there is a chance, you really do never know”.  It’s hard to disagree with him after such an unpredictable and exciting 2012 season.

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3 thoughts on “Judging Jenson’s championship chances

  1. Great article. I really can’t help but feel that Alonso seems destined to clinch it this year, with Vettel at his heels. It seems McLaren just haven’t got it together this year somehow, and in my opinion, Button needs the confidence to perform; something that has diminished race after race this year. As you say, with the gap so huge, to climb up the standings up to first or even second seems impossible.

    • Thanks very much. I completely agree, I can’t see past Alonso for this years’ championship. Too many mistakes early on in the season by McLaren have allowed Ferrari to capitalise. Button’s confidence really seems to have suffered.

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