If you had two collisions, one with your team mate, 5 pits, a break for rain and a drive through penalty – could you win that Grand Prix?
Events are all the same with every sport- you have your favourite. The one you remember for a particular moment of genius, or a convincing performance. F1 is no different and my favourite race happened on the 12th June 2011, in Canada. It’s difficult to write a background for this one, as I’m going to mention some of it in a later article and, truth be told, I’m not sure that this needs a huge amount of background information anyway. This was much more a one off event then something that had been building up over time. However, that being said, it would be remiss of me to neglect the preceding events. 12 teams entered the 2011 F1 season, meaning there were 24 drivers. Michael Schumacher had extended his seemingly, and almost literally, pointless return to F1 for another year and, while that had led to a fuss about how many world champions were now on the grid (5: Schumacher, Alonso, Hamilton, Button and Vettel), in reality he was past his best and more of a passenger than anything else. Still, he features in this story and to not mention him would be doing him a disservice. McLaren had persisted with the all British line up of Hamilton and Button, despite an average previous year, and there seemed to be no issues there. One of the major changes from the season before had been the introduction of Pirelli tyres; and by the time the Canadian Grand Prix occurred, they had already been found to degrade a lot quicker than the previous Bridgestone models. Also, the use of KERS had been re-introduced as an optional extra and a new device known as the Drag Reduction System (DRS) had been introduced, allowing more opportunities for overtakes in DRS areas. If you were behind the car in front by a second or less when you entered the DRS detection point then, at the DRS activation point, you press a button and a flap on your back wing opens up, increasing speeds by up to 12 km/h by the end of the DRS zone. It was designed for overtaking and was not allowed to be used under dangerous conditions, such as a torrential downpour.
The start of the 2011 season had been marred by controversy, surprise surprise, when there was a political uprising in Bahrain and the Crown Prince had decided that it was unsafe to race there. Originally the Bahrain Grand Prix was simply rescheduled, before being scrapped all together. This meant that the provisional calendar of 20 races was reduced to 19. Canada was the 7th race of these and by the time it got around, Sebastian Vettel was already running away with the title, and for all intense and purposes he had already won. He had a gap of 58 points over his nearest rival, and only fellow Grand Prix winner that year, Lewis Hamilton. Mark Webber was third, 6 points back from Hamilton and 3 points back from Webber was Jenson Button. Fernando Alonso completed the top 5 with 7 fewer points than Button. Red Bull’s lead of 61 points in the constructors’ championship seemed almost insurmountable too and, so early into the season, everyone else seemed to be racing for pride and second place. For the record, Vettel had won in Australia, Malaysia, Turkey, Spain and Monaco with Hamilton’s win coming in China, where Vettel had finished second. The race at Bahrain the year previous had been criticized for becoming a procession; this was exactly what F1 seemed like in general this year. As I’ve said, not much of this is important – I just find it interesting and thought that those of you who do not know much about the 2011 F1 season would like to know.
The teams arrived in Canada, at the Gilles Villeneuve circuit, for two practice sessions on the Friday and one on the Saturday, before qualifying. Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is in Montreal and is classed as a street circuit. I’ve always found it fascinating as it is located on a man-made island on the St Lawrence River, giving it a picturesque and unique setting. It is a low-downforce track, which meant that a few of the teams had made changes to their car to adjust for this. One of the features of Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is the Wall of Champions, a wall that occurs on the final corner of the race track where, as the name suggests, Champions have crashed. These include Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve. Of the current crop of drivers, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg had crashed there in the past. Funnily enough, both of these could be called champion victims as Rosberg was GP2 champion and Button won the F1 drivers championship in 2009.
Rosberg was the fastest driver in first practice, with Alonso and Schumacher second and third respectively. However, this was a session cut short by a crash into the Wall of Champions, with Sebastian Vettel being the victim and the wall had claimed yet another champion! During the second session, Alonso was the fastest. Vettel recovered from his crash to claim second fastest ahead of Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton picked up a puncture halfway through the session and so his true pace may have been greater. Vettel had completed his usual dominance by the third session; he was the fastest in that ahead of Alonso, Rosberg and Massa. This session was stopped prematurely due to Pedro de la Rosa, replacing the concussed Sergio Perez at Sauber, crashing with a minute left. All that these practice sessions had done was to convince everyone that Vettel was once again favourite for the pole and the victory, while the Ferrari’s were probably his closest competitors. A KERS failure on Mark Webber’s car had meant that Vettel’s team-mate hadn’t set a time in third practice so his pace was an unknown as a result. Later on that Saturday, qualifying took place under dry conditions.
For those who don’t know, F1 qualifying is split into 3 sessions. As there were 24 cars during the 2011 season, the slowest 7 cars left in the first session followed by the next 7 slowest in the second. That left the 10 fastest to have a shoot out for pole position. The first session lasts 20 minutes, the second 15 and the final one 10. During the 2011 season, the three slowest teams had been Virgin, HRT and Lotus and they had almost always left in the first session. They had been fighting each other to finish 18th (or 17th) for the whole season, with the one exception being Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus reaching the second session of qualifying at a rain affected British Grand Prix, a couple of races after Canada. Usually they took one of the drivers from a “midfield” team (Torro Rosso, Williams, Force India, Sauber) who had made a mistake around the circuit or a driver who had crashed with them. It was often during the 2011 season that the top 10 was all 10 drivers from the best 5 teams (Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault).
There were no exceptions to this general rule in Canada. All 6 small team drivers departed in the first session, taking with them Jaime Alguersuari, complaining of insufficient grip and brake balance. Paul Di Resta managed to qualify in 11th, thus being the best placed rookie at this grand prix. But none of the midfield drivers could stop the top 10’s dominance, although as both Renault cars finished 9th and 10th, this was a day for the big four teams. Button and Hamilton, in 7th and 5th respectively, sandwiched the two Mercedes of Rosberg and Schumacher. The McLaren’s complained about the downforce on the circuit, saying it was the reason for the slow speeds. Ferrari got their drivers into 2nd and 3rd with Alonso out-qualifying Massa by about 2 tenths. However, the day belonged to Sebastian Vettel as he won pole with a time of 1.13.014. It was expected to be a win for Vettel the next day, assuming no obscure weather conditions. As it turned out, that was exactly what was about to happen! Qualifying was blown away by the pouring rain that arrived in Canada on the next day.
The heavy rain, which hadn’t been predicted to arrive until an hour into the race, had meant that the race started under the safety car and with everyone on full wet tyres.
The safety car came into the pits after 5 laps, but the drivers had complained about poor grip and some, especially Hamilton, had said the race wasn’t safe enough to continue. After Vettel and Alonso pulled away from the field, Hamilton touched Webber’s back wing and sent him spinning just after the first corner.
Hamilton rejoined behind Button and found a chance to overtake him after Button made a mistake on the chicane during last 8. Hamilton ducked out to overtake him yet Button continued on the racing line. With the spray being so bad, the two cars collided, sending debris all over the track. Hamilton tried to continue but the team told him to stop the car. The race was once more put under the safety car and Button pitted for intermediate tyres, as the track was starting to dry out. He came out of the pits and was told he had a drive-through penalty for the incident. After both pit lane appearances he re-emerged in 15th place by lap 13 when the race re-started. This resumption hadn’t changed the order of the drivers, and Vettel pulled away from the Ferraris. Ferrari decided to bring Alonso in to change to intermediate tyres, as well as both Mercedes vehicles. On lap 19 there was a massive rainstorm which drenched the track immediately and left the drivers on intermediate tyres stranded with little to no grip. Button dived back into the pits to change to full wets but then the safety car came out, this didn’t affect him as much as it should have done however due to almost everyone doing the same thing. Vettel, Massa and Webber were the big winners from the safety car as they were able to pit under the safety car. After 5 laps under the safety car, on lap 25, the race was suspended due to dangerous conditions.
The rain lasted for over two hours. BBC had resorted to showing slow motion pictures of rain drops falling onto the track and poor Jake Humphries was running out of things to talk about. The time in the UK was reaching 9 o’clock and you can imagine that the BBC bosses were stressing about the evening schedule! However, the rain finally abated and the Grand Prix resumed under the safety car, the positions the same that they were at the suspension. Kobayashi had got up to second place, Massa had stayed in third, Heidfeld and Petrov were fourth and fifth, all following behind Vettel. Paul di Resta and Pedro de la Rosa had pulled themselves into sixth and ninth place, with Webber and Alonso in between them and Button behind. As that top 10 shows, the race had been completely blown apart by that rain. However, the track had dried enough after the three laps under the safety car to be driven on intermediate tyres. Button did exactly that on lap 37, arriving back out behind Alonso. On turn 3, Button tried to overtake Alonso however there was contact and Alonso spun, never to return to the race. Button escaped once more, this time with a puncture, and managed to wrestle himself to the pits. The safety car was again deployed with the seemingly logical conclusion that Vettel would win by a canter seeming inevitable. Vettel was dealing with the stopping and starting excellently, always managing to pull away from the field after a safety car and not making a mistake in changing conditions. Given his dominance this year and the fact that now Alonso and Hamilton had both retired, the result was nailed on.
Button remerged from the pits and henceforth the race in 21st – back of the pack. He managed to catch the Hispania’s under the safety car but had to overtake 10 cars just to get into the points. The task seemed impossible, let alone the possibility that he could win it! It was so remote at that point that had you gone into the bookies and placed even 10p on it; they would have laughed you away. The next section of the race was one of the most fascinating in memory. Almost every car was involved in overtakes, the only exception being Vettel. In 7 laps, by lap 44, Button had pulled himself up to 14th place. Schumacher had climbed to fourth and set the fastest lap of the race. DRS was enabled this lap, just as Barrichello and Rosberg fought for 8th place and Maldanado and Alguersuari fighting for 10th. Button reached these two and passed them both before drivers started changing to slick tyres, the first being Webber. Schumacher then managed to pass both Massa and Kobayashi to reach 2nd place before Massa got 3rd and pitted for slicks. Massa then picked up some front-wing damage and had to pit while Adrian Sutil retired from the race. Button pitted for slicks in 9th position, and after this he managed to reach fourth and was catching the three leaders, who were now Vettel, Schumacher and Webber. Heifeld tried to overtake Kobayashi on lap 56 but damaged his front wing, causing it to drop underneath his car and send the car flying into an escape road. Once more, the race was thrown into a safety car situation, the sixth of the race. Maldanado and di Resta were the two remaining retirees; Maldanado spun off meanwhile di Resta gained a puncture. Before all of that though, Schumacher lost second place to Webber only for Webber to concede it as he had cut the chicane. Webber once again cut the chicane the next lap, where this time Button overtook and then later that same lap Button overtook Schumacher to get into 2nd place. On lap 67, Webber cruelly denied Schumacher his first podium since his comeback when he overtook him. By this point Button was catching Vettel, and he set the fastest lap on lap 69.
The win seemed too far away though as there was only one lap left and Vettel had a lead of 0.9 seconds. But then, Vettel made a mistake, his first of the season, on turn 6 and Button took full advantage – going on to win the race. Vettel held onto second with Webber and Schumacher following him past the line. Petrov took fifth before Massa overtook Kobayashi on the line for sixth place. The final scoring places were taken by Alguersuari, Barrichello and Sebastian Buemi.
The race was incredible for many reasons, not just Button’s win from the back of the field. It set many records, had a lot more overtakes then I have ever seen in an F1 race, including longest ever race, (some but not all aided by DRS) and saw a return of form, of sorts, for Michael Schumacher. The rain had meant it was the longest F1 race of all time, and after spending so long worrying if we wouldn’t get it finished – the result seemed even more incredible. Button described it as the best win of his career, there was no retrospective action for either of his accidents and Hamilton agreed that Button probably didn’t see him. There was mixed feelings in the paddock over the use of the safety car, some drivers thought it was deployed too much others said it was just right. This race deserves a place in my prime memories list due to the once-in-a-lifetime feeling about the whole event. It was an incredible sporting event that gripped everyone watching it. One of those moments you hope for every time you sit down to watch a sporting event.
Overtake of the race: A lot of contenders for this one – mainly from Jenson Button! In fact, I have to do a top three to do this any sort of justice. At number 3 is Jenson’s on Vettel – not because it was spectacular but because of the importance of it and the drama it created. Button’s overtake of Webber pitches in at number 2. Webber had made a mistake on the final corner, cutting the chicane. Button pulled out on to the wet side of the track, managed to keep his car from aquaplaning and spinning (on slick tyres) and overtook Webber, stunning driving. But number 1 goes to Michael Schumacher. While Massa and Kobayashi were fighting for second place, he snuck up behind them and overtook them both in one movement. The spirit of the old Michael Schumacher had returned.
Quote of the day: Speaking after the race, Jenson Button said this:
“I enjoyed it very much coming through the field, fighting your way through the field is almost as good as winning the race. That feeling of getting one up on someone. A great race for people who are sat here, to be on the podium is a pretty exceptional result and to fight my way through from last position… It is definitely my best race.”
That quote for me sums up everything that Jenson is about and what motorsport should be about. He was a worthy winner and a wonderful advert for F1.
There is a brilliant BBC highlights reel from this race found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/formula1/13744893