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GP Week : Issue 121
Around the McLaren garage they spoke mainly of the rain they hoped would fall on Sunday. The variables, as the grey dawn broke, were too many to swallow. More than one team was unaware of the DRS regulations in the wet (of the FIA’s universal control of re-activation in the event of the track drying out) and no-one had any real experience of the Pirelli wets or intermediates. Factor in a low-grip track surface, KERS, Safety Cars and weather patterns on a radar screen that looked like a blow-up from a Jackson Pollock mural and you had a Canadian Grand Prix that everyone on a good day had a reasonable chance of winning. Or at least figuring-in. The rolling start took away some of the sting, although Seb Vettel’s slight hesitation on the initial drag race almost cost him the lead. He survived Fernando, though, and imperiously began to pull away. The RB7 was dazzlingly fast in every dimension – top speed, braking, turn- in, exit – and Seb was soon stitching the components together in that seamless, rhythmic way of his. Half a second became one; one second became two-and-a-half. About his only worries were: (a) when to change tyres on the drying track and, (b) would he be in any way prone to the chronic KERS problems that had (again) afflicted Mark Webber on Saturday? Behind him, the race was re-shaping. Felipe Massa, now looking every bit the driver he was prior to Hungary 2009, began to hassle Fernando; Lewis Hamilton tapped Mark Webber out of the first corner and thus found himself in amongst the Mercedes pair. Michael Schumacher was by far the most flamboyant of these and defended perfectly when Lewis tried a move down the outside at the hairpin – a move that was about as ambitious, and as likely to succeed, as a paparazzo’s request for an exclusive photo shoot with Michael’s family. Frustrated, Lewis fought back: these were his weather conditions; this was his retribution. He was all over Jenson Button, who had also slipped through at the hairpin. Lewis darted left-right under braking, filling mirrors. Jenson was slow-ish out of the last corner, Lewis flicked left....and Jenson moved right over on him, unaware that Lewis was even there. On the pit wall, Roger Cleary was holding out a ‘belt-and-braces’ board for Mark Webber. He saw a ball of spray – saw something – but the next thing he knew was a thump on the wall, a shower of debris – and a pit board with no bottom-row of numbers. Lewis had clanged the concrete so hard that it broke the left-rear suspension. It was his fourth collision in two races. The Safety Car thus made the first of five separate appearances on this Day of Days (32 laps out of 70!). That, and calls to switch to intermediates too early, for the rain had begun to ease, brought further changes to the race structure. Ferrari brought in Fernando Alonso for inters – as did Mercedes with Nico Rosberg and Michael. Then a storm – one that had been moving in from the west since the early morning – finally arrived. Those on inters reverted to wets. The track was drenched. The race was red-flagged. The race was suspended. The order (incorrectly defined by Seb Vettel pulling up on the wrong side of the road!) now saw Kamui Kobayashi up in second place (no pit stops and some nice traffic work to gazump the two Renault drivers and Paul Di Resta in a Sauber from which he had had virtually no feel in the dry) and Felipe Massa third. Jenson Button had made a quick damage-repair stop after his brush with Lewis, had switched to inters... and had then been hit not only by having to change back to wets but also by a drive- through penalty (Jenson having exceeded the Safety Car baseline lap speed). As they lined up for the (two-hour) race suspension, Jenson was 11th. The drivers climbed from their cars, ate protein bars, chatted to engineers and mechanics. No-one knew if the rain would even ease, let alone if there would be a re -start. Finally, though, the Canadian sun began to brighten the clouds. Nine laps behind the Safety Car dispersed much of the standing water. Another rolling start again gave an easy lead to Sebastian Vettel. Kamui drove beautifully in his amazing second place. Felipe Massa pushed him hard at first, then backed away a little, regrouping for a second try. A dry groove became more prominent; from the mid-field, Jenson was now running up behind Fernando, pushing him hard. Both had just stopped for more inters – Jenson for a used set, Fernando for new ones. Both were keen to get ahead. Nico Rosberg’s tardy Mercedes was on Fernando’s racing line as they approached the first chicane out the back. Jenson saw an opportunity and darted to the inside, pulling right up alongside the Ferrari as they hit the brakes. Fernando, livid, moved over slightly, hoping to cramp Jenson into submission. Jenson didn’t back away. His left- front caught Fernando’s right rear, spinning the Ferrari into retirement and the McLaren into a slow run back to the pits with a punctured left-front. At that point, you thought, Jenson was out of it – even if the race was only half- over. With a fresh set of (new) inters, he had rejoined in 21st place. He was dead last, indeed – except that the latest Safety Car (from his own incident) in reality meant that he was only 16 sec behind Seb Vettel. What remained was a motor race: only one more Safety Car paused the fun; the dry groove got drier. And Michael Schumacher finally looked like Michael Schumacher. An early, brave call for inters elevated him from the mid-field to seventh. He danced on the edge of the dry groove, looking for openings. He passed both Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld in traffic. He chased down Felipe Massa, who was still stuck behind Kobayashi. There was no DRS in play: this was all Michael, driving hard and fast. Jenson, meanwhile, was slicing his way through the back-markers, hitting some of them (Pedro de la Rosa) in his rush to flick past but for the most part looking as Jenson always does – neat and easy, with perfect use of accelerative power. With 20 laps to go, with the pace on the near-dry road picking up by the lap, and with Kobayashi’s inters now destroyed, Michael passed both the Sauber and Massa to move up to second. He was now within 10 seconds of so of Vettel; Jenson was now in the mid-field, a further 20 sec behind. Now the race entered its final phase: everyone switched to slicks – but Webber and Button switched earlier than most; Charlie Whiting activated the DRS zones (two of them but with only one detection area, in the hairpin). Michael maintained his second place but now had Webber and Button lining up behind him – the more so when a final Safety Car (caused by Nick Heidfeld inexplicably running into the back of Kamui and destroying the Renault’s front wing) re-bunched the field. There was now less of a palette from which to draw creative grip: now slower into the hairpin than the Red Bull or the McLaren, Michael was a sitting duck for DRS. Except that Webber kept making a hash of it. Slowed in qualifying by KERS issues throughout Saturday, Webber had driven extremely well to be up there now: his first- lap skirmish with Lewis now seemed an age away. Even so, this was a difficult phase for him. Webber flattened his rear flap, moved off line to pass – and then found the wet. Twice he straight-lined the last chicane. Michael hung on in P2. Jenson waited. And then waited some more...which is the difference, of course, between Jenson and Lewis. At the front, Seb Vettel was now finding it hard to know how quickly to drive. The track was still wet off line; he was leading Michael by six seconds or so. There was no way that Michael was going to beat him. He went conservative – for the main zone of speed increase in these conditions is under braking. And there was no point in risking it. Not with the race nearly run. Suddenly, astonishingly – when he wasn’t even trying to pass Michael – Webber on lap 64 again straight-lined the chicane; Button was instantly past, darting to the left on pit straight. He didn’t even need to use his DRS. Michael submitted easily to the McLaren; by now, Jenson’s ‘extra’ downforce was giving him an edge on tyre wear. He was suddenly the fastest man on the track, searingly quick both in high-speed braking and acceleration. Too late, the RBR engineers sent word through to Seb. Seb dug deep. He went three seconds a lap quicker. He was on the limit, though. In these conditions, in this ambient, on those fuel loads, the McLaren’s much-maligned rear wing was perfect for the job. Jenson inexorably closed. Seb began to brake later and later... Until, on the last lap, he dropped it. He held the moment pretty well, as it happens – he didn’t spin, he didn’t hit anything – but it was a wild, ugly-looking half-spin. Jenson was through. Just like that. McLaren mechanics’ faces lit up in the late afternoon – very late afternoon – sunshine. All that remained was a half-lap of Montreal. Paddy Lowe’s smile came latest. He wanted to see the chequered flag, see the waves, hear the radio. He wanted to know that he was still on planet earth. Many had been the reminders, only 24 hours before, that McLaren’s strategy had been wrong, that the car was suddenly slow – that life, as ever, would throw its knives. Now, as he stood on the podium in Canada, he saw the other side of a grand prix weekend: despite two accidents, five pits stops and a drive-through penalty, Jenson Button had won in Montreal. The downforce level – and DRS strength – had been perfect after all. 24