Button has edge on Hamilton
Updated: 2012-03-22 07:56
By Matthew Marsh (China Daily)
Sunday's season-opening Qantas Australian Grand Prix suggested Lewis Hamilton is no longer a match for his team-mate Jenson Button. But what's the real story?
Qualifying went well for Lewis. The 27-year old was fastest in the final free practice and then seemed comfortably to take pole position. Button made it a great Saturday for the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team by taking the other front-row position. The 32-year old was the usual tenth-and-a-half behind. Lewis is the faster, Jenson the better at managing his tires - that's been the mantra since Button joined the team after winning the 2009 title for Brawn GP (now Mercedes AMG).
Yet, on Sunday, Jenson seemed to have both bases covered. Lewis spun his wheels off the startline allowing his fellow Capricorn to overtake into the first turn. Jenson drove away comfortably for the first 10 laps before Lewis could match his pace.
With the gap at 3.5 sec they stopped on laps 16 and 17 respectively (teams usually allow whichever driver is ahead to stop first). Jenson emerged onto a clear track while Lewis found himself behind Sergio Perez. The Sauber driver had adopted, as last year, a one-stop strategy and thus gained track position over those making two. While the Mexican was not slow over the race distance (he would finish an impressive eighth from 22nd and last on the grid) being stuck behind him meant Lewis fell 11 seconds behind Button.
It also helped erode Hamilton's advantage over Sebastian Vettel. The reigning champion started a relatively poor sixth but was on the Briton's tail when the two McLarens made their second stop, together, on lap 37.
With Vitaly Petrov's Caterham parked in a dangerous spot, the safety car was deployed just after the McLaren pair left the pits. Regulations - with clever technology feeding live timing data to the drivers - prescribe the speed cars must travel before they catch up with the safety car. Button and Hamilton had to complete almost a full lap at this pace whereas Vettel, having not yet stopped, was further around the track and could go faster for a while longer (the entire middle sector). He was able to make his own second stop and return to the track ahead of Hamilton.
You could say Hamilton was twice unlucky. Or that he should have been faster in the first stint and not been caught behind Perez. Lewis himself spoke of tire degradation and from television pictures it looked like he was sliding more than his teammate. Whether that was cause or effect of his disadvantage to Button it's difficult to say. With the teams already in place at Sepang for this weekend's Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix we won't wait long to find out.
After a successful career on the track, Matthew Marsh now works at JMI - the world's leading motor sport marketing company. He can be reached at email@example.com.