Jenson Button took his first victory for McLaren in an incident-filled Australian Grand Prix thanks to a mechanical failure for chief rival Sebastian Vettel and a bravely-timed tyre change that left the rest of the field standing.
The race began in rain, disrupting all the teams’ carefully-planned tyre strategies and creating the new challenge of deciding when to return to dries once it stopped.
Button, who was mired down in seventh place after a first-corner clash with Fernando Alonso and a bold overtake by team-mate Lewis Hamilton, pitted on lap six – far earlier than anyone else thought practical.
It was a risky decision, made by the driver not the team, and Button later said he’d thought he’d made a “catastrophic” error when he saw how wet the pitlane was. He ran wide almost immediately on his out-lap but was soon setting fastest sector times, forcing the rest of the field to re-evaluate their plans.
“It was the right call – I’m very happy to have made it,” said Button. “It is a lot easier for the drivers to feel the conditions. Teams can see clouds coming in but we can feel what is coming in. I didn’t have balance at all on inters, so I thought let’s get in and stick slicks on.”
All but the race-leading Red Bulls of Vettel and Mark Webber followed Button’s example immediately, rapidly promoting him up the running order, and when the leaders eventually made their stops he found himself in second behind only Vettel.
The young German looked set for an untoubled win, but on lap 26 his brakes failed and sent him straight on into a gravel trap and retirement.
“It breaks my balls,” he said later in frustration. “We are all pushing and trying to do our best. It’s nobody’s fault, but we need to get on top of it. There was nothing I could have done and I lost the car. It’s a shame as I think we had the race under control even though the conditions were difficult.”
After that, the result swung on who had made the better decision – Button, Robert Kubica, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, who were all still on the tyres they had taken when the track dried, or Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg, who had all made an extra stop mid-race and were much faster but out of position.
Button said a second stop had never been an option for him: “For me, I never thought of putting on another set. My aim was to run the race on one set of tyres if we could. My pace was not great – once I settled into the car I felt I was starting to damage the tyres, so I settled into a pace that would not destroy the rears.”
In the end, Hamilton was left fuming at his team over what turned out to have been an unnecessary extra stop, as Button successfully managed his tyre wear to take the win while his team-mate cruised up to the back of Alonso but could not regain the places he had lost by pitting.
Instead he was knocked back down the running-order when Alonso locked a brake defending, forcing Hamilton to slow sharply where he was speared by Webber as the Australian lunged for a gap that was no longer there.
Promising to find out who had been responsible for the extra pitstop, he told the BBC: “I think I probably had one of the drives of my life and unfortunately, due to the strategy, I was put further back and then I got taken out by Mark Webber.
“The strategy was not right – everyone else in front of me did one stop and for some reason I did two. I honestly drove my heart out today and I think I deserved better than what I ended up with, but I’ll keep fighting to the next race.”
This final shake-up in the race-long battle between Hamilton and Webber meant that Kubica, Massa and Alonso were freed to finished second, third and fourth behind Button, while Rosberg was just unable to jump Alonso at the end.
Button said the victory was “very special”. He said: “It is difficult to put it into words, it is a very special feeling and we will take a lot from this. I feel I am building in confidence, and I hope in the next rate we can do something similar as this feels too good.
“We could not have done a better strategy. My decision at the beginning was my call but with a lot of feedback from the circuit. It has taken me a little while to get to grips inside the car, but the team has been fantastic and welcomed me in. I need to thank McLaren for all our hard work – it’s good to see us get a result for it.”
Hamilton hung on for sixth, ahead of Vitantonio Liuzzi for Force India and Rubens Barrichello for Williams. Webber was forced to pit for a new front wing and finished ninth – ahead of a subdued Michael Schumacher, who had spent most his race unable to get past Jaime Alguersuari.
At the start Vettel had got away strongly but Webber had been jumped by the fast-starting Massa, who leaped from fifth to second. Button and Alonso clashed at the first corner, sending the Spaniard spinning into Schumacher.
The reigning world champion slipped back to sixth, while Alonso found himself stationary on track facing the on-coming traffic. He resumed in last place while Schumacher was forced into the pits for a new front wing as the old one was trailing sparks as it rubbed against the track.
By then, however, the safety car was already out as Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi had lost his own front wing in the early corners and been unable to brake for turn six, slamming across the track and into Nico Hulkenberg and Sebastien Buemi.
After the restart Webber reclaimed his place from Massa, but his race was effectively ruined by his team’s decision to delay the switch back to dry tyres. Vettel came in at the last realistic opportunity – and would have lost his lead to Button had the McLaren driver not run wide during his first lap on dries – but Webber had to wait an extra lap and dropped to sixth after his pitstop.
After the tedium of the Bahrain race, Australia served up endless action as first Alonso recovered through the field from his first-lap spin and then Webber and Hamilton repeatedly found themselves out of position thanks to pitstops and incidents.
In the midfield, Kubica took advantage of the first-corner shenanigans to gain position and held an impressive second place to the end, while his team-mate Vitaly Petrov charged through the field after his disappointing qualifying, only to beach the car on lap 10 and retire. Force India lost Adrian Sutil to an engine problem, while both Toro Rosso’s Alguersuari and Sauber’s Pedro de la Rosa were squeezed out by Schumacher’s late recovery from a largely anonymous race.
Of the new teams, Lotus brought Heikki Kovalainen home in 13th but were unable to even get Jarno Trulli to the starting line. Both Virgin cars and Hispania’s Bruno Senna retired, but Karun Chandhok completed the race in 14th, albeit five laps down.
Australian Grand Prix results
- Jenson Button, McLaren: 1:33:36.531 (25 points)
- Robert Kubica, Renault: +00:12.034 (18 points)
- Felipe Massa, Ferrari: +00:14.488 (15 points)
- Fernando Alonso, Ferrari: +00:16.304 (12 points)
- Nico Rosberg, Mercedes GP: +00:16.683 (10 points)
- Lewis Hamilton, McLaren: +00:29.989 (8 points)
- Vitantonio Liuzzi, Force India: +00:59.847 (6 points)
- Rubens Barrichello, Williams: +01:00.536 (4 points)
- Mark Webber, Red Bull: +01:07.319 (2 points)
- Michael Schumacher Mercedes GP: +01:09.391 (1 point)
- Jaime Alguersuari, Toro Rosso: +01:11.301
- Pedro de la Rosa, BMW Sauber: +01:14.084
- Heikki Kovalainen, Lotus: +2 laps
- Karun Chandhok, Hispania: +5 laps
- Timo Glock, Virgin: Retired (41 laps)
- Lucas di Grassi: Virgin: Retired (26 laps)
- Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull: : Retired (25 laps)
- Adrian Sutil, Force India: Retired (9 laps)
- Vitaly Petrov, Renault: Retired (9 laps)
- Bruno Senna, Hispania: Retired (3 laps)
- Sebastien Buemi, Toro Rosso: Retired (1 lap)
- Nico Hulkenberg, Williams: Retired (1 lap)
- Kamui Kobayashi, BMW Sauber: Retired (1 lap)
- Jarno Trulli, Lotus: Did not start
(Points-scorers only are shown)
- Fernando Alonso, Ferrari: 37 points
- Felipe Massa, Ferrari: 33 points
- Jenson Button, McLaren: 31 points
- Lewis Hamilton, McLaren: 23 points
- Nico Rosberg, Mercedes GP: 20 points
- Robert Kubica, Renault: 18 points
- Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull: 12 points
- Michael Schumacher, Mercedes GP: 9 points
- Vitantonio Liuzzi, Force India: 8 points
- Mark Webber, Red Bull: 6 points
- Rubens Barrichello, Williams: 5 points
(Points-scorers only are shown)
- Ferrari: 70 points
- McLaren: 54 points
- Mercedes GP: 29 points
- Renault: 18 points
- Red Bull: 18 points
- Force India: 8 points
- Williams: 5 points