Canadian GP 2011: full race report

Button wins epic four-hour Canadian Grand Prix

Englishman steals it after mistake from Sebastian Vettel on last lap; Vettel second

Rain-affected race hampered by Safety Cars but spectacle undiminished

Webber third; Hamilton and Alonso retire after both clash with Button

Jenson Button won last night’s marathon Canadian Grand Prix in nail-biting fashion on the last lap. The Englishman had chased down leader Sebastian Vettel and the Red Bull man made a crucial error halfway round, handing victory to Button.

The McLaren driver had endured and triumphed over a series of obstacles – driving rain and changing track conditions, five pit stops, a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the Safety Car, and clashes with Hamilton and Alonso, not to mention all the overtaking he needed to do to get back to the front.

It was definitely Button’s most spectacular win to date and he must this evening be very proud of the chutzpah he showed on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

A few minutes before the start, as the grid prepared in the rain led by pole-sitter Vettel, the news came through that the race would commence behind the Safety Car. Despite a number of seasoned observers and fans wishing for the more dramatic option of a standing start, Race Control had chosen to be cautious – the first of many questionable decisions by the authorities yesterday.

They trundled off, in the grid order of Vettel-Alonso-Massa-Webber-Hamilton-Button, and it took five laps for Bernd Maylander in the Mercedes saloon to signal to the gantry that the track was safe enough to be raced on. He pulled in, and despite a very watchful Fernando Alonso shadowing the Red Bull around the hairpin preceding the back straight, Vettel got the jump on the Ferrari and was off. He really is getting very good at that now, courtesy perhaps of “falling asleep” in Hungary last year.

Vettel quickly set about pulling out a comfortable gap from the Ferraris, but the real action was happening behind him. Into turn one, Hamilton had slid up the inside of Webber from a very optimistic distance. Unsurprisingly and in spite of the room afforded him by the cautious Australian, Lewis understeered clear into the Red Bull, sending him spinning round. Hamilton – whose responsibility for this crash cannot be denied – was forced to slow completely and avoid his floundering victim. “I think Lewis thought the chequered flag was in Turn 3!” Webber said after the race. “We made contact and it is not easy – I think it was a bit clumsy early in the race. I lost a lot of positions,” he said.

Webber was down to 14th, in point of fact, at the hands of the Englishman, although with obviously a fast car and his racing instinct burning fiercely, Hamilton was nowhere near done yet. He had fallen behind Schumacher and so there was the old Red Baron to be disposed of. On the very same lap Hamilton made his move, down at the hairpin, but the old man was very savvy and put his car just where Hamilton wanted his own to be. Off line, in the puddles, Hamilton found that even he could not find any grip. Team mate Button was by in a flash.

It was obvious to most that Hamilton had a quicker car at this point, and was itching to get past Button so as to chase the leaders down. On lap seven the younger man following sniffed blood as Button had an ugly entry and exit to the chicane preceding the pit straight. Hamilton drew left and by dint of his better run out of the corner, started gaining on Jenson. Button, craning his neck to see his mirrors, was unsighted due to the spray and eased leftwards himself, on the racing line. They came together, Hamilton clouting the pit wall hard and forcing a number of pit board danglers hurriedly to pull up their signs. “The incident with Lewis… I couldn’t see anything when he was alongside me. I couldn’t see anything in my mirrors. It was one of those things and I have apologised to him,” Button said fairly after the race.

Much was made in the immediate aftermath – and has been made today – of this being an echo of Red Bull’s fateful Turkey close encounter last season. In point of fact it was nothing of the sort – a racing incident if ever there was one. Hamilton should have gone right, and was overly optimistic again, but went for a gap and Button cannot have seen him. Talk also much in evidence today that this is a) testament to an unsettled Hamilton mind or b) further proof of Lewis’ madness and that he will kill someone soon – is hyperbole.

The practical consequence of the dramatic event, nevertheless, was that Hamilton was out of the race, his left rear wheel thrust at an ugly angle against the rear wing. He initially sought to carry on, convinced that the suspension had not been broken and that a wheel change would suffice. The team were later shown to be right to tell the Englishman to stop, though, as real damage had been done – although whether that was due to the way in which the MP4-26 was brought back to the pits rather than the accident is open to debate. Meanwhile, Button dived into the pits for the first of many stops, hopping onto the intermediate tyre on what was at this point a fast-drying island circuit.

So as a result of Hamilton’s indiscreet parking, the Safety Car was out once more. Vettel’s lead, which had been carefully crafted by the diligent German, was brought to nothing; a frustration which the Red Bull man seems to often have had to endure. Alonso was still second with Massa third, the Ferraris looking good for a podium if nothing else at this point. The great Spaniard did not look a credible threat to Vettel – and as the race got back underway on lap 12, that perception was vindicated as once more the Ferrari failed to challenge the blue and yellow car in front.

Presumably in reaction to watching Vettel disappear once more, and hearing over his radio that Button was tearing up the tarmac on the intermediates, on lap 18 Alonso too pitted for the faster rubber in the drying conditions. This decision was followed by all save for Kobayashi and di Resta amongst a precious few others; but it turned out to be the wrong one, as the heavens then decided to open at the hairpin end of the island. It intensified and then got ridiculous. In a probably wise if slightly over-cautious and pre-emptive move, Race Control sent out Bernd again to shepherd them round in the gloom. The leading men hopped back into the pits to get back on the extreme wets – Ferrari queuing up to correct their strategic move. Crucially, there were some men – see Kobayashi, Heidfeld, Petrov, di Resta and de la Rosa – who still didn’t pit. It was a gamble, because it was bucketing down.

They sailed round for a bit, slow as you like, and Vettel was busy on the radio telling all and sundry that the cars were undriveable at certain points of the track. All very well, you might think – he’s the leader and it suits him very well to postpone the race for a bit. It seemed Race Control agreed, though, and in fact there really was no option but to red flag the thing for the time being. It wasn’t getting any better.

They lined up on the grid and the order at this crucial point was Vettel, Kobayashi, Massa, Heidfeld, Petrov, di Resta, Webber and Alonso. Those wise or foolish enough not to have pitted for either inters or to go back onto full wets were laughing. Kobayashi, Heidfeld, Petrov and di Resta now could have their tyres changed ‘for free,’ in effect, benefiting hugely from the rule that such a luxury can be granted whilst the race is suspended.

And so we sat, waiting for the race to resume. For a long time. At least most of us weren’t getting as wet as the fans in the stands, or as cold as the mechanics on the grid, or as frantic as the commentators in their boxes as they searched in anguish for things to talk about. “Did you know that race car backwards spells race car, David?” Brundle asked Coulthard in the BBC room.

And so very little happened for two hours. A cameraman fell over in front of Rihanna. Lewis Hamilton looked aggrieved, a facial expression he has of late been afforded the time to perfect. Heikki Kovalainen, in 21st for Lotus and getting sodden, wondered how on earth it had come to this.

But then it brightened up noticeably, so much so that it stopped raining completely. Race Control, and more pertinently Charlie Whiting, seemed to have fallen asleep, because there was a distinct delay in reacting to the now clement weather. To be fair, radar indicated that another shower was on its way – but so slow was the stewards’ response that the new rain came just as the ten minute restart announcement finally was broadcast. This raised the awful prospect of a further delay, but thankfully the elements held off.

And if you get the impression that Race Control didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory yesterday in Canada, their next decision took the biscuit. Firstly (and admittedly somewhat reasonably), full wets were demanded as a pre-requisite for the restart. But then the field were escorted round until the track was basically dry, or at least suitable for intermediate tyres. You could almost hear fans screaming at the television – “What is the bloody point of wet tyres if you’re not going to allow them to be used?”

Despite seeming an age, it was only nine laps that Herr Maylander was in the lead, and again it must be conceded that ‘safety-first’ is an unimpeachable policy. But at times yesterday Race Control’s approach appeared zealously over-protective and pre-emptive. These drivers are the best drivers in the world, and they can do their water-clearing while they are racing, thank you very much.

Rant over, because the racing consumed the attention once more. And how. It was now lap 30 – and poor Heikki Kovalainen retired before he could start racing again, just after having sat in the rain waiting. The majority of the drivers immediately went to visit their mechanics for a change of boots – evidence for sure that Mr Whiting had stayed his hand too long. On track Massa was sweeping left and right trying every which way to get past a very wide Sauber in the hands of Kobayashi.

Vettel was once more evaluating the situation before committing himself to tyres – and yet again this was the right decision. The Safety Car was out once more, this time for Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso’s accident. On the approach to turn three the McLaren man had thrust a rather hopeful nose up the inside of Alonso, a gap “that was always going to close,” according to Martin Brundle on the BBC. Alonso came off much worse, being spun round onto the high kerbs on the outside of the corner and with no hope of return. “That car is indestructible,” remarked Alonso pointedly after the race, as quoted by Spanish paper Marca – he was not, of course, referring to his own Ferrari.

But as well as the SC giving Vettel another gratis stop, in effect, Button also had to dive in for new tyres, the left front of which had been punctured by its encounter with the F150th. This was a low point for the Englishman, who although might have suspected that there was a chance of a chunk of points if the unpredictability of the event was to continue, he’d have to do it from the back. 21st place was where he found himself at this juncture.

The leading German was revelling in conditions, meanwhile. Kobayashi was doing a fine job of defending his second position and all that meant Vettel could make hay up front. Massa, Heidfeld, di Resta and Webber followed the Japanese man in the white Sauber, until di Resta was unduly rash into the chicane and clouted Heidfeld, losing his front wing. The Scot was later to be penalised for the move, a decision he did not agree with. “I’d had a chance of passing Heidfeld the lap before the incident, but thought I’d bide my time. I got another run on him, got alongside him, but where he was trying to brake and what he was trying to do, he was never going to make the chicane and he took my front wing off. So I had to stop for a wing change, and I got a drive-through penalty, which again I thought was harsh.”

Vettel’s compatriot Schumacher was also a name to watch. Drying and uncertain track conditions had always been the old man’s forte and he was not disappointing today. In fact, he was giving the performance of his (second) career, hustling his way up to fifth place. He had got past Webber on the restart and was setting about catching Heidfeld, who had Massa and Kobayashi and of course Vettel in front of him as we entered lap 45.

This was to be an interesting little battle as the race went into its final stages. Webber was not done with Schumacher and had quite a lot of fight left in him. DRS now enabled and overtaking a certainty rather than a likelihood, they were bearing down on the leading trio. But Vettel was seemingly uncatchable and once more all braced themselves for another wonky finger as he surely took the win serene and untroubled.

Such thoughts did not take into account the searing pace of a certain Jenson Button in the McLaren, who by this point had made his way up to 12th. He was not quite as quick as Vettel, who was still dominant in terms of fastest laps, but he was getting there.

Then all of a sudden that battle for second flared up. Kobayashi ran wide and, attention directed solely at Massa, moved right to prevent the Ferrari man getting through. What the Japanese had failed to take account of was the chasing Schumacher, who was close enough to sweep by them both. Vintage Schumacher – opportunist, successful, devastating. An incarnation of himself we’ve seen far too seldom in his comeback.

As if aggrieved that Schumacher had managed to do at the drop of a hat what he had been trying to do for most of the race, Massa seized the initiative and dived past Kobayashi into the hairpin. The order was now Vettel, Schumacher, Massa, Kobayashi and a rapidly closing Webber, who was setting quicker and quicker times on some super-soft, slick tyres.

It was at this point that most followed Webber’s example. Button went in again and took on some dry rubber, as did most of the top ten. He was now setting devastating times, thrusting past Kobayashi who had by this point also succumbed to Webber. After careful consideration, Vettel realised that he too needed to be on the dry Pirellis, although off line it was still treacherous. Felipe Massa was the most spectacular to find this out – after having pitted on lap 53, he lost it lapping a Hispania and nosed the barrier hard. It was enough to bring out a yellow flag – someone sneezing in the stands was – but mercifully not another outing for the Safety Car.

So while Massa was out of the running, Heidfeld certainly was not. Until, that was, he misjudged the speed of Kobayashi in turn two and ran clean into the back of him. Unbeknown to the German his front wing was fatally damaged and although he tried to continue the stress took its toll and the wing broke under him. He was lucky to escape injury in the ensuing big crash, which…you guessed it…brought out our favourite gull-wing Merc.

Under the SC for what would thankfully be the last time, the order was Vettel, followed by Schumacher, Webber, Button and Kobayashi. This looked to be a grandstand finish, the order of which all were cruelly denied in Monaco. And principally because Webber and Button were the fastest of the lot of them.

Webber was bearing down on Schumacher at a rate of knots and trying his level best to get past the German. But Button was looming large in his mirrors and looked distinctly as though he meant business. Tricky situation for Webber – defend or attack? “It was a pretty good fight with Michael,” said Webber post-hostilities. “Again it was difficult, as we both wanted the same bit of track for the main braking point for the chicane. In the end got there, but when JB arrived he was absolutely flying and I was trying to be, we were all trying, to be as fair as we could.”

It was perhaps that fairness that would be the undoing of the Australian. He – to all intents and purposes – was past Schumacher down the long straight, but overcooked it into the chicane, cut it, and was forced to give the position back. Next time round he was slightly more circumspect, but was again in error out of the chicane – and magnificently Button swept out from under the Red Bull’s rear wing, with lightning reflex, to take Webber down the pit straight. In a day full of superlatives used to describe Button, this moment was when he demonstrated that he can show the kind of daring usually associated with his team mate. It was as good a piece of driving as has been seen this year.

For some time it had been clear that the Frome man was significantly quicker than Vettel in the lead. As time ticked away it remained to be seen whether he had it in him to catch and pass the German. The McLaren made short work of Schumacher, disposing of him in a ruthless manner of which Webber had been incapable, and set about the task in hand. All sorts of variables were in play – could Vettel respond? How much life had Button left in his tyres? And would the time limit frustrate the hopes of the nails-bitten-to-the-quick McLaren mechanics?

Not in doubt was the pace that the top four were setting. It was absolutely furious. Petrov – himself due some credit after fighting his way up to fifth – was ten seconds down, with erstwhile podium-placer Kobayashi behind him in sixth and a rejuvenated Massa hunting them down in seventh.

With four laps left, Button was less than two seconds behind Vettel. It looked as though the German had shot his bolt and that Button’s getting past would be a mere formality. But then something curious happened – a kind of stagnation. Vettel had found some speed from somewhere. Murray Walker popped up in our memories – “catching is one thing, passing is quite another”. Would this be a case of Vettel defending casually to the flag?

And so they entered the last lap, Vettel power-sliding the Red Bull out of the chicane – and that must have been the moment when the chasing Button knew he could have him. There wasn’t much left in the RB6’s rubber, still less than in Button’s P Zeros. It would be the last straight, surely, wouldn’t it? With DRS about to make its mark definitively on 2011…

But then they came down to it, and with just four corners proper to go, Vettel ran wide. In his angst, he did very well not to lose the car completely. But it was enough for Button, who scooped up all the joy that had just disappeared from his adversary’s heart. He cruised home, eye on the mirrors for a daring comeback from Vettel, but one that would never materialise from the broken Red Bull man.

As Button went over the line and millions cheered, this incredible Canadian Grand Prix had not quite finished giving. Massa was damned hot on the heels of Kobayashi for sixth, and as they slid onto the pit straight, he used his DRS to draw level and…just pip the Japanese driver over the line by mere hundredths. Honourable mentions, too, to Jaime Alguersuari, whose eighth place was merited and much-needed, and to all the other finishers, who dealt masterfully with atrocious conditions.

And there it was. An emotional and exhausting race for all concerned, but one that will live long in the memory for the viewers and the fans who stuck with it. And better credit could not go to Button than he stuck with it, even in 21st place and with next to no hope, to take a victory of such verve and sporting beauty.

Pos Driver Team Time
1. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 4h04:39.537
2. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 2.709
3. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault + 13.828
4. Michael Schumacher Mercedes + 14.219
5. Vitaly Petrov Renault + 20.395
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari + 33.225
7. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 33.270
8. Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 35.964
9. Rubens Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 45.117
10. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 47.056
11. Nico Rosberg Mercedes + 50.454
12. Pedro de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari + 1m03.607s
13. Tonio Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 1 Lap
14. Jerome D’Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 1 Lap
15. Timo Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 1 Lap
16. Jarno Trulli Lotus-Renault + 1 Lap
17. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth + 1 Lap
18. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 3 Laps

Retirements:

Driver Team Laps
Pastor Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 61
Nick Heidfeld Renault 55
Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 49
Fernando Alonso Ferrari 36
Heikki Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 28
Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 7