Wednesday 26 April 2017

F1: Button delivers in style

Angry Hamilton overshadowed after 'terrible' pitstop blunder

Kevin Eason In Melbourne

IT WAS THE agony and ecstasy of Formula One, a high-octane outpouring of passion as two world champions and team-mates experienced the highs and the lows of life in the fast lane.

For Jenson Button, there was the ecstasy of winning the Australian Grand Prix yesterday for the second consecutive year. It was not only a victory but a vindication. When he won here last year on the twisting road course around Albert Park, many said that it was his super-fast car that was the champion, not him.

But this time, the critics had to eat their words as the super-smooth driver won with a new team and in a car that was not the best in the field.

The agony was reserved for a fuming Lewis Hamilton, who produced one of the most exhilarating drives of his career. He had been pilloried since being caught by police smoking his tyres on a public road as he left the circuit late on Friday night and seemed to have descended into a gloom that would severely hamper his race after he qualified only 11th.

But he emerged from his own personal episode of 'Police, Camera, Action' to put on one of the truly great displays of driving and single-handedly transformed a sport that looked condemned to the scrapheap into a model of gripping drama.

In the end, he was robbed of an extraordinary second place only by a well-meaning mistake by his McLaren team and a blunder by a hapless Mark Webber, who managed to punt Hamilton off the circuit with only two laps to go to the chequered flag. Hamilton, who had to settle for a frustrating sixth, was understandably furious. He could see his team-mate driving into the distance on a single set of tyres when he had been made to pit for a second time.

"Whose call was it to bring me in?" he barked down the radio to his pit crew. "Freaking terrible idea."

The answer was one of McLaren's super-computers. Just when Hamilton needed the computer to say no, it crunched the numbers and decided he could not make it through the dense traffic without a change of rubber. Yet Hamilton proved lap after lap that he could overtake seemingly at will in a swashbuckling display that took the breath away.

deserved

"I probably had one of the drives of my life, but, unfortunately, due to the strategy I got put back," Hamilton said. "I drove my heart out and I think I deserved better. The strategy was not right. Everyone else in front of me did one stop and I did two."

If Hamilton was the stylish "yet disappointed" brawn of the McLaren team, Button provided the brains with his split-second decision against all the evidence to ditch his wet-weather tyres after only six laps and switch to slicks while the rest of the field ploughed on. It was a combination of instinct, intelligence and sheer bloody-minded bravery -- and it underpinned the victory.

"I was really struggling and I lost a couple of places, so I thought, let's get in, stick the slicks on," he said.

"I thought I had made a catastrophic decision as it was soaking wet in the pitlane. But once I got up to speed, the pace was pretty good. So it was the right call and I am very happy that I made it now."

Button and Hamilton came into the season billed as the 'Dream Team', but they are more than that, a combination of opposites whose different temperaments and skills complement each other. They are not in the fastest car by any means, yet McLaren have a victory on the board and the pair lie third and fourth respectively in the World Championship.

Sebastian Vettel should have dominated, having taken a second consecutive pole position. But this is a young man who appears to have broken several mirrors at once such is his bad luck. A spark-plug worth €3 cost him victory in Bahrain a fortnight ago; this time, it was a broken wheel rim that failed after 26 laps in which he had led with ease.

He refused to remove his helmet as he stalked back to the Red Bull garage, no doubt to hide his turbulent emotions, but his summary was succinct enough: "S*** happens. It breaks my balls not to get the win."

The rain on the German's parade was as great as the spots that fell before the start of the race. Holding a grand prix in Melbourne as the Australian autumn beckons is to invite capricious weather, but that simply adds to the excitement. The race in the dustbowl of Bahrain a fortnight ago was as dry and dull as the feast here was thrilling.

There was more action in two minutes in Melbourne than in two hours in Bahrain, with cars rushing into the first corner. Fernando Alonso, hoping for a second victory for Ferrari and starting third on the grid, was tagged as he turned into Button's McLaren and spun round. Webber, the home-grown favourite, had already lost ground and was to spend the day veering between setting pulsating fastest laps and careering around the slippery track, culminating in driving his Red Bull into the rear of Hamilton.

Underdog Robert Kubica drove his Renault steadily and quietly into second place for what was another "drive of the day" candidate.

Behind him, though, there was overtaking galore -- Alonso on Webber, Webber on Massa, and Hamilton, well, on almost everybody as he swashed and buckled his way through the field.

It was an exhibition of driving of the highest order, so good that even the Melbourne police who had taken such exception to his driving style as they impounded his car should have been moved to applause. For Hamilton's team-mate, though, it was an exhibition of driving of the highest order of a different kind -- calm, ordered, intelligent and, ultimately, winning. (© The Times, London)

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