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Massive understeer — or Jenson Button’s nightmare season


By Berthold Bouman

A very disappointing home Grand Prix at Silverstone for McLaren’s Jenson Button, he qualified in 16th place, but at least scored one point as he finished in tenth place. Initially the season started well for the 2009 World Champion, he won the first race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, but after that things went downhill fast.

Jenson Button, McLaren

During a very rainy Malaysian Grand Prix, Button crashed into the back of Narain Karthikeyan’s HRT, apparently due to a momentary lapse of concentration. “I hit the brakes in turn nine and locked the rears. I tried to slow the car down going into the corner but I could not stop myself from hitting Karthikeyan,” Button said later.

Next one in China went a lot better, Button was back and finished the race in Shanghai in second position but two weeks later everything went wrong during the Bahrain Grand Prix. “Massive understeer,” is what he frequently reported to his team, during qualifying and the race. Button started from fourth position on the grid but had to retire after an exhaust failure and a puncture just two laps shy of the finish line, and thus finished in 18th position.

“Our race pace is normally very good, but it wasn’t in this one; the pit stops weren’t that special either, and our tyre degradation was higher than most, so all in all a very difficult day. We just didn’t have anything,” Button commented.

Next race, the Spanish Grand Prix, also became a massive disappointment. Button didn’t make it into Q3 but eventually could start from tenth place because his team colleague pole winner Lewis Hamilton was demoted to 24th place after he ran out of fuel after his qualifying lap and couldn’t bring the McLaren back to the pits under its own power. Button finished ninth and again complained about the balance of the car, the understeer and the massive tyre degradation.

The Monaco Grand Prix became even worse, Button qualified in 12th place and finished 16th, again not really something to write home about. He had no idea what was going on, “It’s my leanest period since the old Honda days but sh*t happens,” he said. “Why is everyone a loser and everyone a winner? Hopefully it will get to a point where we all understand what is going on.”

In Canada, he was again mystified by his bad performance, tenth during qualifying and 16th in the race, tyre management was apparently still the problem. “I don’t get it,” he said. “It’s something we need to work out because throughout my whole career of 12 years that’s something I’ve always been reasonably good at.”

Back in Spain again for the European Grand Prix, but the story was the same, tyre problems and massive understeer. “I didn’t think I’d have days like these in my career again, and I don’t understand it. Being lapped by your team-mate — who won the race and did an amazing job — it’s a strange one more than disappointing,” said a by then desperate Button.

The team even copied Hamilton’s set-up to use it on Button’s car, which gave some improvement, but it wasn’t enough. “I won’t be as quick as him on those settings, but then we can work from there and find a set-up that works for me,” Button said, but the trick didn’t work and the problems persisted.

It seems things went from bad to worse for the Briton, but what is going on? That is of course something McLaren also would like to know, at least Hamilton has proved the car is fast enough. McLaren has analysed all the data from Button’s car meticulously, even the chassis of the MP4-27 has been examined from top to bottom by the McLaren boffins, but they found nothing that could explain Button’s slump.

They are different theories about Button’s problems, he is obviously struggling with the tyres, but that is a problem others have as well, it is very difficult to find the right tyre window — the temperature window in which the Pirellis work best. A few degrees too high or too low, and the Pirellis lose their grip, and the temperature also has a huge effect on the tyre degradation.

The exhaust blown diffuser has been banned and that makes the rear of the car more ‘lose’, something some drivers like, while others detest it. Just a few weeks ago, McLaren’s Team Operations Director Simon Roberts reported, “We think we’ve stepped nearer to understanding it all. Whether we’ve cracked it, only time will tell. It’s been a painful but interesting learning exercise for us.”

For Silverstone McLaren had several major car upgrades, but despite the fact both Button and Hamilton reported the car definitely felt better, the result was again disappointing. Next on the calendar is the German Grand Prix, hopefully for Button, McLaren will have found the leak by that time. If not, Button’s hopes to keep fighting for the 2012 title will definitely be over.

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