Why Button needs to sort his form out quickly
When Jenson Button is at ease with his car he is brilliant, but when he isn’t the tightness of the F1 grid in 2012 is proving costly for him.
The Australian GP was the perfect start. He was very happy with the car and duly went on to win the race. He was like the Jenson from the first third of 2009 with Brawn GP and the second half of last year. Life seemed great.
Since then though his season has been going rapidly downhill. Recently Button hasn’t been as happy with the car. Being a few tenths away from your best this season is very costly.
2012 is the most competitive F1 has been for many years. Thanks to the banning of the blown diffuser, stable aerodynamic regulations and the Pirelli tyres, the field has closed up dramatically.
In general the time covering the competitive part of the field (excluding HRT, Marussia and Caterham) has halved is comparison to last year.
This is making the role of the driver ever more important. For drivers who are able to extract those extra couple of tenths from their cars, it can currently make a significant difference to their position.
Finishing the practice sessions without having found the perfect setup, (therefore missing the odd tenth here and there) can put you a long way back on the grid.
Button is one of those drivers who needs a perfect setup, as he is one of the most sensitive drivers on the grid. When his car is perfectly balanced, isn’t suffering from understeer/oversteer and he can get heat into the tyres he is as fast as anybody.
Whilst the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso can drag speed from a car that is far from perfect, Button on the other hand will tend to struggle.
The narrow operating window of this year’s Pirelli tyres is making it much tougher to find that perfect balance consistently. The tyre's sensitivity to temperature makes it even tougher still. This is making life hard for Button.
When Button is having one of his strong weekends he is right up there at the front of the grid. As we saw in Melbourne and Sepang when he got the car to his liking, his raw pace is actually impressively close to that of Lewis.
In Melbourne he was only 0.152 slower than his team mate in qualifying. In Malaysia the gap was even closer at 0.149 seconds.
However on the weekends when he isn't getting everything together he is really suffering. Due to the fact that he is lacking those vital few tenths it’s dropping him a long way down the grid at the moment.
In Spain he didn’t make it to Q3 despite only being 0.839 slower than pacesetter Pastor Maldonado.
Had he been just 0.277 seconds quicker he would been in third place and through to the final session of qualifying with ease. That instance just shows how fine the margin is between success and failure at the moment in F1.
After the session Button said: "I just struggled with a very different balance from yesterday. I had oversteer all through qualifying, then, on my final run - when we actually added more front wing - I had understeer!"
In 2011 being 0.839 seconds off the pace would have put him in 5th place and through to the pole position shootout comfortably.
In Monaco Button was just 0.625 seconds off the ultimate pace in Q2 but that put him way down in 13th and out of the session.
After the session Button said: "The car felt good this morning and we looked strong, but then we couldn't translate that performance when it mattered. It's strange, because it's there at certain points of the weekend - even this morning, in P3, the car felt good and I was pretty happy."
Again if you look back at the same point in 2011 Button would have been in seventh place. However he would have been half a second clear of the drop zone so no danger of being knocked out.
In 2011 being a few tenths behind the true pace of your car wasn’t too costly. It was still perfectly possible to qualify within the top ten and score good points in the race.
In the 2007 season McLaren and Ferrari were miles ahead of everyone. A race in particular which comes to mind is the Belgium GP. That weekend Hamilton wasn’t happy with his car. However despite his issues he still finished fourth nearly 30 seconds ahead of Nick Heidfeld's BMW.
When any of the drivers from those two teams were off form that season, it still took a mammoth effort from the chasing pack to shift them from the top four.
However with the grid presently so tight, being a few tenths off the pace can mean a difference of about ten positions at times, and getting knocked out earlier than expected in qualifying.
The difficulty with qualifying so far back at the moment is that it’s become very hard to recover from a bad grid position.
In the race you need to battle through the field whilst preserving the delicate Pirelli tyres at the same time. The two don’t go hand in hand.
Furthermore the field is so close that you can’t just blast your way through the pack. The top teams don’t have a massive performance advantage over any of their rivals excluding the three newer teams.
You are also spending a lot of time in the dirty air of the car in front, and that damages the tyres too.
In Spain Button was only able to progress one place from his grid position. Of course in Monaco he was never going to make up much ground due to the difficulties of overtaking in the principality.
On a good weekend there is no doubt we will see Button challenging for more victories, and scoring big points.
However on those weekends when Button isn’t happy with the setup he is at huge risk of having a weekend similar to what he has experienced in Spain and Monaco.
When you are challenging for the championship you can’t afford to have many races where you score little or no points. Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are the top three drivers in the championship at the moment because they have been the most consistent.
Button has failed to score any points in three of 2012’s six races so far. It's clear from Hamilton’s qualifying performance in Spain and Monaco that McLaren still have a very quick car.
Jenson needs to find a balance and setup he likes extremely quickly. Even more important is that he and the team get to grips fast with the mysterious Pirelli tyres. If he doesn’t the likelihood of enduring more difficult weekends similar to Spain and Monaco are alarmingly likely.
Another couple of results like that, and the gap between himself and the championship leader is going to start to be difficult to claw back.
Button admits he needs to improve his qualifying performance in Montreal: "This weekend, though, it's going to be important to get a handle on the car in qualifying. At the last two races, Q2 hasn't gone my way, so, no matter what pace you have in the race, you're still compromised on Sunday afternoon, particularly as the pack is so tightly bunched at the moment."
He added: "My aim for the weekend will be to have a stronger qualifying performance and to be able to build on that in the race."
When everything is perfect Button is one of the best on the grid. Let's remember that in Melbourne he was driving away from Hamilton with ease in the opening stages of the race.
However the fact that he isn’t able to drag the performance from his car when he isn’t happy with the balance, shows that he perhaps isn’t up there with the Vettels and Alonsos of this world.
He has a narrower operating window than the other top drivers in the sport. It has to be said this weakness is being exposed more at the moment.
However he shouldn’t yet be ruled out from this championship. If he can become at one with his car like he did in the second half of 2011 he can get right back into it.
If F1 2012 stays as close as it currently is, he will need to achieve that before he gets cast adrift in the title race.