I’ve already written about last weekend’s Bahrain grand prix, won by Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel, but looking back again, I thought it was worth returning again to something I covered only briefly in last week’s article: the fight between the two McLaren team-mates. As mentioned in my last blog post, Sergio Perez eventually got the better of Jenson Button, despite the latter’s complaints over team radio, to finish sixth.
The on track fight between the two was a lengthy one, though, and post race comments by Button, in addition to those that he made over team radio during the race, clearly showed that he was far from happy with his Mexican team-mate’s tactics. The 2009 world drivers’ champion said that he was “not used to driving down a straight and your team-mate wiggling his wheels at you and banging wheels at 300kph”, and implied that Perez was immature when he further commented that “That’s things you do in karting but grow out of. Not the case with Checo”. Was Perez really that far out of line, though?
In my view, it was great to see two team-mates battling hard for track position, and being allowed to do so. Was Perez aggressive? Yes, absolutely, but then he was under pressure to be exactly that. Let’s not forget that, three races in to his McLaren career, the Mexican was a man under pressure. He already had Lewis’ Hamilton’s very large shoes to fill when he joined the team, but after being comprehensively outpaced by Button in the opening rounds of the reason, and receiving a fair amount of fan and media criticism, that pressure had ramped up.
After the previous race in China and ahead of the race in Bahrain, his team principle, Martin Whitmarsh, said of Perez “I think he’s been very polite so far this year; I think he needs to toughen up”. He also said that “You’ve got to be out there racing and that means sometimes you’ve got elbows”, and further elaborated by saying he said. “It’s right that you’ve got to be robust without being dirty”.
So, there’s Perez effectively being told by his team-principal that he needs to be more aggressive. To paraphrase Whitmarsh, Perez had to be tough, but fair. I’d argue that that’s exactly what he was in Bahrain. The crucial battle between the two came at around lap 30 when Perez’s front wing was damaged when he hit Button’s right rear tyre from behind. Button was soon on the team radio to complain, saying “He’s just hit me up the back. Calm him down”. It would seem a reasonable complaint from the Englishman, you would certainly not expect your team-mate to behave in that manner, but I’d argue that there were mitigating circumstances.
It’s easy to forget that Perez damaged his own car in the incident. It’s also easy to forget that Perez was obviously not trying to hit Button’s car. The incident most likely occurred because Button was trying to prevent his team-mate from passing him on the exit of the turn, by slowing mid-corner to halt the Mexican’s momentum. It’s obviously Perez’s responsibility to react and slow down himself to prevent contact with his team-mate, and it’s clear that in this instance he failed to do so sufficiently, but was the contact really caused by over aggression?
I’d argue that it wasn’t and that Perez probably just got caught out and made a mistake. The incident could quite easily be compared to an incident in China on the opening few corners between Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. In China, the Ferrari driver hit the back of Vettel’s Red Bull, damaging his front wing, which failed the next lap, putting him out of the race. Was Alonso being over aggressive in this incident? Clearly not; he got caught out because Vettel had been going more slowly than he had expected at that particular corner – much the same as Perez’s contact with Button.
So, for me Perez was just doing what he’d been told to do – be more aggressive, but fair. It was not as if Perez was intentionally battling unfairly with another car, as Pastor Maldonado had clearly been guilty of in the past. In fact, I’d argue that if either of the two McLaren drivers was overly aggressive it was Button, who actually forced his team-mate off the track in his desperation to maintain his position. Had Perez been over aggressive in that particular instance and not yielded track position there would certainly have been contact between the two McLaren’s. Contact that could have put both drivers out of the race.
Worse than that, though, were Button’s post race comments indicating a lack of maturity from his team-mate and an over aggressive nature. Personally, I expected more from a driver of Button’s experience and standing. The Englishman had been very clear before the start of the season that he regarded himself as the team leader at McLaren after Hamilton’s departure, but his post-race comments didn’t really demonstrate the level headedness that you would expect from him.
Sam Michael, McLaren’s sporting director excused Button’s comments by explaining that “Straight after the race had finished, Jenson was interviewed by a large group of TV reporters, as is always the case when a grand prix has come to an end. Jenson was frustrated that his race-long battle with Checo had slowed his progress throughout the event, and believed that Checo had at times been too forceful in his defence – and he made some robust live-TV comments about Checo as a result”. Going on to say that Button had been more balanced in later interviews.
To an extent, this is fair enough. Everyone makes comments in the heat of the moment that they might later regret. Other drivers have done so in the past, and will certainly do so again in the future, but if you’re to excuse Button’s post race comments so easily, then you’ve also got to excuse a little heat of the moment over aggression , if indeed it was even that, from his 23-year-old team-mate. To be fair to McLaren they’ve done just that.
If Perez’s performance in Bahrain is any indicator of what we can expect from him for the rest of the season, we’re certainly in for some exciting racing. That might be difficult for Button to come to terms with, especially if his young team-mate can start beating him more regularly. As former McLaren driver John Watson told BBC Sport “If Perez gives Button a difficult time, it’s up to Button to come to terms with it. It’s a fact of life. He can’t expect Martin Whitmarsh to tell Perez to back off”. Watson also added “If your kid team-mate is pushing you hard, it’s not nice, but it’s part of the game. You have to respond by getting in and doing the best job”.
It’ll be interesting to see how the battle between the two team mates continues as the season develops. If Button can respond in Barcelona by reasserting the dominance over his teammate that we saw in the opening three races of the season, we might see Perez respond by either battling back hard or fading badly. If Perez can maintain the momentum he established in Bahrain, though, it’ll be interesting to see how Button reacts…