It’s Button again

Jenson Button on the podium at Sepang.-AP

The Brawn GP driver’s success was rewarded with only half the customary allocation of points as the race was stopped by torrential rain before reaching the three-quarters cut-off point beyond which full points are awarded. By Alan Henry.

Jenson Button boosted his Grand Prix victory tally to three — and two in eight days — by surfing past the chequered flag in his Brawn-Mercedes, in the first race for 18 years to be flagged to a halt due to heavy rain.

The previous one to suffer such a fate was the 1991 Australian GP in Adelaide which was abandoned after barely a dozen laps when Nigel Mansell crashed his Williams in pursuit of Ayrton Senna’s winning McLaren-Honda.

Button’s success was rewarded with only half the customary allocation of points as the race was stopped before reaching the three-quarters cut-off point beyond which full points are awarded. It was all rather a stark contrast to the humid and torrid conditions in which the battle for grid positions was fought. Button was well in control, qualifying on pole position by one-tenth of a second. With five minutes of the session left to go it seemed as though Rubens Barrichello might join his Brawn team-mate on the front row of the grid but late spurts by Jarno Trulli’s Toyota and Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull put paid to that.

Unfortunately for Vettel, he had to take a 10-place grid penalty following a collision with Robert Kubica’s BMW Sauber in the Australian GP.

“I think we have a lot more competition this weekend than we had in Australia,” said Button. “I think Ferrari, despite their problems in Australia, and Red Bull, will be very hard to beat.” He was right as far as Red Bull were concerned with Vettel but the Ferraris were still hobbled by handling problems and could not deliver their hoped for improvement.

Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen finished out of the reckoning, making it the first time since 1992 that Ferrari had been pointless after the opening two races of the season. Come the race, the weather made most of the predictions academic. Button squandered his initial advantage with a slow start, allowing Nico Rosberg to come catapulting through from sixth on the grid with his Williams-Toyota. The young German completed the opening lap just over a second in front of Trulli.

A few lengths further back a frustrated Button was darting left and right through a tightly packed bunch of slower cars, determined to make up for his tardy getaway, and duly completing the opening lap just over a second behind the Italian’s car. The leading trio initially began to edge clear of the main pack, the next bunch of cars headed by Fernando Alonso’s Renault, Barrichello, Raikkonen’s Ferrari and Timo Glock’s Toyota.

When the rain arrived on lap 22, most of the field opted for a change to wet tyres giving Button the opportunity to show his command of the conditions by opening up a 24.6sec lead over his second-placed team-mate Barrichello by lap 25. Glock, on intermediates, was moving up through the field and was able to take the lead when Button came into the pits to change from wets to intermediates on lap 29.

As the heavens opened Button went into the pits for a fourth time to change back to wets but with Glock also stopping for wets, he managed to emerge from the pits in first place before the race was suspended after 31 laps as conditions became impossible for drivers.

A restart was considered but, with the rain continuing and darkness descending, the race director decided not to attempt it, leaving BMW’s Nick Heidfeld in second and Glock in third. Heidfeld had judged his tyres so astutely that he pitted only once. He now has eight career second places against two wins.

Glock’s third place was only the second podium finish of his career, having been runner-up in Hungary last year. “It was one of the best races I ever could do,” Glock said. “I said go to ‘inters’, took the risk and it paid off.”

Each backed the decision to stop the race. Heidfeld said: “It was very clearly impossible to run if the rain continued like it was when the race was rightly stopped.”

Glock added: “I was trying to follow the safety car, it was quite difficult, I was swimming around. It was just unbelievable and impossible to drive for me at the end and the right call was to stop the race.”

Lewis Hamilton, who had finished seventh to gain his first point this season, was doubtless relieved, having started 12th on the grid. But there was little consolation for Ferrari, who were in rueful mood afterwards. “Last year we had a better car, so it was easy to improve things quickly and get into the fight again,” Massa said.

“This time we have a difficult car so it will be a little bit more difficult. We need to start from zero. We need to get together to understand point by point what went wrong and try to improve everything. For sure the car is not strong enough. We need to work on that. We made some mistakes on our strategies and we need to get together and understand what went wrong.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009