Jenson Button provoked an outpouring of derision in the wake of the Bahrain Grand Prix with his less-than-favourable comments on youthful team-mate Sergio Perez’s driving tactics.
What so upset F1’s most experienced driver that he felt compelled to deride what many saw as out-and-out competitive racing from the Mexican?
Many observers, ex-McLaren driver John Watson among them, put their thoughts into words and condemned the former World Champion for his ‘cry-baby’ mentality and lack of Espirit De Corps in complaining to Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh.
The really difficult aspect to get one’s head round was the apparent conflict in principles the Briton seemed to go through in the short three hour period surrounding the race itself, from criticising his team-mate to battling his rival to the edge of the limit; Button wasn’t exactly an innocent in the matter, with his strong arm defensive lines seeing him run the sister McLaren off the circuit at one point in his bid to outwit Perez.
Was he unsettled by this sudden upturn in form from ‘Checo’ as he is known globally to his fans? It’s easy to imagine that after three races of what amounted to virtual dominance of his new team-mate, the sudden proximity of a feisty Perez just as he thought he had him covered took Button by surprise. The Englishman is used to racing his team-mates (just ask Rubens Barrichello, Lewis Hamilton and Jacques Villeneuve among others) but rarely has one been so willing to risk physical contact and damage to his machine to steal Button’s position.
This public outpouring over the team radio (“He just hit me up the back, come on guys – surely?!”), reveals the most compelling argument for Button’s strange behaviour in Bahrain. The tone of voice was more akin to that blistering the airwaves in Lewis Hamilton’s time at McLaren. The motives for Hamilton’s move to Mercedes might now be coming clearer to his older compatriot who is in his fourth season with a team that last won a constructors trophy back in the distant past of 1998 – a previous century. Hamilton, it was widely felt, was losing patience with the erratic form of Bruce McLaren’s brainchild and elected he would vote with his feet. Indeed, the Woking team’s wildly fluctuating performance since Button joined the team in 2010 suggest they have little in the way of direction with totally new designs emerging from the space-age MTC every March. By their own confessions, the MP4/28 was a radically different machine from its predecessor, a total contrast to rivals Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus who all elected to evolve their successful 2012 designs. Yet the MP4/27, fastest of all in the final race of last season, was cast onto the rubbish heap marked ‘obsolete’. Button’s feeling the pressure of knowing his career clock is ticking, and he has substantially fewer hours left to run than many of his competitors.
Why was there never this kind of confrontation with his recently-departed stablemate Lewis Hamilton? The two enjoyed several close encounters on track (Turkey 2010 and Brazil 2012 bookending their three seasons of combat) with only a subtle undertone of respectful rivalry between the two men. Even when things looked set to explode in the wake of that calamitous Canadian Grand Prix clash in 2011, Button and Hamilton made up their differences and continued to race hard and fairly. Why the anguish from racing Perez then? Perhaps Button looked on Hamilton as an equal, both former World Champions, both British and both vying for supremacy within the team they served. Perez is different; a newcomer, a reputation for occasional over-exuberance and yet to be a proven race-winner. Being usurped by one so inferior in hard results is galling for the 2009 World Champion.
Jenson Button wore the face of an angered, frustrated and surprised individual in the Sakhir paddock post-race; the face of a man who had just had his position within his team and within Formula One itself come under serious assault. It would be wrong to suggest a driver of Button’s calibre would doubt his ability to deal with such an averse situation, but not unreasonable to imagine his indignation at the attack temporarily warped his judgement of what was a compelling race between two of the greatest drivers in the world. From Red Bull to Marussia, each of the men who take to the grid on Sunday afternoons is world-class. Button knows that, and consummate professional that he is, he’ll be raring to prove his worth when the field gets going in Barcelona.