Tuesday 28 February 2017

Motorsport: Button ready for epic Sepang fight

Kevin Eason

Spectators were warned to beware lightning strikes as the clouds started to dump their load over the Sepang circuit yesterday. A repeat tomorrow threatens to turn the Malaysian Grand Prix into another aquatic epic.

If the weather runs to form, you could tune in for the start at 9.0 and not be sure whether you are watching Formula One or a rerun of the Boat Race, because when it rains here, it pours. The track is transformed into a winding torrent as impressive as the Thames, but at least the Oxford and Cambridge crews are properly equipped. The drivers will be all at sea again if the heavens open.

The capricious weather played its part in Jenson Button's victory in the Australian Grand Prix last weekend and he will look to the skies over Kuala Lumpur tomorrow and wonder what the clouds have in store for him.

If he is in luck, it will be a repeat of his victory here last season in a race ended prematurely by the sort of storm that could be seen again.

Button wants dry conditions, but he proved in Melbourne that he is capable of taking the main chance when it is offered and his McLaren promises awesome speed on Sepang's long straights, which should allow him and Lewis Hamilton, his team-mate, to take on the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari.

Button reckons his car could have a speed advantage of as much as 9mph. The question is whether the McLaren drivers can convert that into victory.

"Even if it doesn't rain, I think we could have a great race because this is the place where you can overtake, you can really race, you can really fight it out," Button said.

The location has changed, but the cast list remains the same: Alonso, the championship leader; Vettel, the fastest, and unluckiest, driver; Button, the winner last Sunday; and Hamilton, the wild card. Happily, not quite as wild as he was last weekend, when he had a brush with the law that resulted in a fine for improper use of a motor vehicle and flayed his team over the radio for calling him in for new tyres, probably costing him a podium finish.

A long chat with the team followed by a couple of days' rest -- appropriately, including an outing in a catamaran -- and Hamilton emerged here chilled and ready to try again.

That much was clear in practice yesterday, when he dominated both sessions, charging around Sepang as though he owned it.

Hamilton gave credit to his team-mate for victory in Melbourne, but his account at McLaren is in deficit and you can bet that he will be all guns blazing here.

Only two races in and emotions are bubbling to the surface up and down the pitlane.

Button is positively bouncing -- it is easy to forget that he is a world champion, effectively dumped by his former team and warned by many not to go to McLaren, where Hamilton ruled the roost. It is early days, but Button has the whip hand and Hamilton knows he is playing catch-up.

Reliability

It is at Red Bull, though, where drivers have been chewing lips and fighting lumps in the throat. Twice Vettel has led a grand prix comfortably and twice he has been let down by his car.

No encouragement, either, that Mark Webber could not last two sessions of practice yesterday as the Australian's machine suffered engine failure. Reliability has proved hopelessly elusive and the McLaren drivers have been looking to see if Vettel's head has dropped.

Vettel insisted that he is far from frustrated, but he knows that these early races were a chance to get points on the board. When you are fastest, you should be winning, and he has not.

No wonder, then, that there is a spring in the step of Alonso. Apply any quality you like to the Spaniard -- fast, skilful, brave -- but the most important asset is consistency. He has a car almost equal to his skills and he leads the World Championship.

Even if the clouds dare to hurl their worst tomorrow, it is Alonso who could be singing in the rain when he leaves Malaysia. (© The Times, London)

Malaysian Grand Prix,

Live, BBC1/BBC2, tomorrow, 8.0/9.55

Irish Independent

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