From victory to 16th - the curious case of Jenson Button 21 Jun 2012
Confused; hectic; thrilling; erratic - there are a myriad of ways to describe 2012s hard-to-pin-down season. Seven winners from seven races is about as exciting as it gets, but for this years first victor, Jenson Button, who won the Australian season opener, its been a little too unpredictable.
After stamping his authority on the championship so firmly in Melbourne back in March, Button has been stuck in the doldrums ever since. And at the last round in Canada the Britons struggles were pulled into even sharper focus. Whilst his McLaren team mate Lewis Hamilton won the race from second on the grid, Button started 10th on the grid and eventually came home a miserable 16th.
Hes scored just two points from the last four races and is currently down in eighth in the drivers standings, 43 adrift of leader Hamilton. So what has caused this slump in the 32 year-olds fortunes? And more importantly, what can be done to resuscitate his championship campaign?
Lets first rewind to Melbourne when everything seemed so bright and promising. He was flawless in Australia, dominating from lights to flag, and even he couldnt help describing it as the perfect start. But just a week later in Malaysia, his championship advantage had already dimmed considerably. Despite once again qualifying in second, he collided with an HRT early in the race and never regained his footing, finding it impossible to generate enough heat in his front tyres. He finished 14th.
There was brief respite for Button in China a fortnight later, when he finished just ahead of his team mate in second on the Shanghai podium. Even so, it wasnt all smooth running, with a 6.5-second delay in his final pit stop ruining any chance there may have been to challenge Mercedes Nico Rosberg for victory. And this glimmer of hope in Shanghai was quickly extinguished at the next race in Bahrain. Though initially in the fight for fifth, a broken exhaust, followed two laps later by a left-rear puncture and then - another two laps on - a differential problem saw him retire.
Luck certainly wasnt on his side, but by then something else was also plaguing Button. Hed already been soundly out-qualified by team mate Hamilton at the opening four rounds, but at the fifth in Spain - and then again in Monaco - he was not only beaten by his team mate, but also failed to break into the top-ten shoot-out.
Whatever the cause, and despite the teams assurances that it was just poor luck, qualifying so far down the order ran roughshod over Buttons chances in the races themselves. In Barcelona, being stuck in the midfield traffic and dirty air led to a fruitless chase that wrecked his tyres, whilst in Monaco he was trapped for much of the afternoon behind a much-slower Caterham and after picking up a puncture he span and retired.
Button himself was pragmatic, complaining about a lack of grip which he blamed on erroneous set-up choices. He arrived in Montreal determined to fix the issue, qualify higher up the grid and not compromise his Sunday afternoon for a third successive race, but once again his poor luck came into play.
After losing much of first and second practice to an oil leak, he was left with very little time to hone the McLaren (and Pirellis tyres) to his liking. But after managing to make it into Q3 for the first time since April there was still hope for the race itself. Fate had other ideas, however. And - the ultimate irony for a man praised last year for his lightness of touch - he struggled to look after his tyres as well as his rivals and suffered for it, trailing home a lap down on his victorious team mate.
In summary, Button is fighting fires on several fronts, which is making it much trickier to solve his issues and reverse his decline in form. Firstly, hes clearly not enjoying Pirellis 2012-generation rubber, or the decline in rear grip that has come with the absence of last years exhaust-blown diffuser. And by tinkering with his set-up to rediscover the feeling he so enjoyed last season, he appears to have opened a can of worms and created a whole new issue for himself.
There is hope though. His practice issues in Canada, which prevented him from carrying out much (if any) real set-up work, may well have camouflaged the progress McLaren have been making behind the scenes. Since returning, Button has been at the McLaren Technology Centre reviewing his Montreal weekend to find a clearer direction for the Valencia round, and given recent comments made by operations director Simon Roberts, the team certainly think theyve got a handle on the situation.
Theres been a huge amount of work carried out back at the factory, analysing the data to check everything was as we thought it was, said Roberts. Were pretty sure at the moment that theres nothing untoward with Jensons car and theres actually nothing fundamentally wrong with the set-up. But, subtly, there are differences with these cars. And I think going into Valencia we are quite optimistic we have identified them. Whether weve cracked it, only time will tell. Its been a painful but interesting learning exercise for us.
One thing that is certain is the pace of the MP4-27. Hamilton is already proving that the car has legs, so as soon as Button finds his own feet in the car - like he did in Melbourne - hell be up and running again.
Theres another reason for Button fans to be cheerful too. The closeness (and unpredictability) of the championship this year can only help his campaign. Indeed, the field is so tightly packed that even the smallest improvement will have a telling affect, and victory or even a podium in Valencia this weekend would promote him well up the rankings.
So dont be surprised if Button is amongst the first to emerge from the pits come Friday morning. Practice makes perfect, after all.
For tickets and travel to 2012 Formula One races, click here.
For Formula One and F1 team merchandise, click here.