This year could just be Jenson Button’s best opportunity to take the world title since he did so with Brawn in 2009 – but what makes his chances look so much better this time around?
Button’s decision to leave his settled position with world champions Brawn at the end of 2009 and join Lewis Hamilton at McLaren was seen by some as career suicide. In fact, it was the best move of his career.
It’s now three full seasons since that move and as Brawn, now Mercedes, have struggled, Button has clocked up 672 points, eight wins, 25 podiums and one pole position in his McLaren machines.
Despite that healthy record, the focus externally and internally always seems to have been on Hamilton – so it’s surprising to discover the team’s ‘lead’ man actually scored 32 points LESS than Button and three fewer podiums during their time together, albeit taking two more wins and eight more poles.
Now Hamilton has moved to Mercedes, Button (providing his new rookie team-mate Sergio Perez does not spring a surprise) has the opportunity to make McLaren his own - and he has already been doing just that.
When Hamilton wavered over his future last year, he was almost certainly locked out of development of the 2013 car and Button had free reign to steer the design more in his direction.
So the new MP4-28 is HIS car, the first McLaren that has been HIS car. And that will be crucial.
Most drivers, including Hamilton, accelerate into the corner, stand on the brakes to stop the car then release the brakes to turn and get back on the throttle. Button brakes more gently, turns in earlier while braking and carries more speed through the corner before getting on the throttle on the corner exit.
Button’s kind of technique requires a car that has a planted rear end and is more balanced through a corner. It also requires tyres that do not need to be worked hard to get up to temperature and that work in a wider window.
Last year, Button struggled with set-up issues. Understanding the behaviour of the tyres was a big part of it, and so too was the fact his driving style demands a specific type of car.
Those are two key reasons why he could deliver this year.
Pirelli have focused on making their new tyres more easy to use but quicker to degrade. Button says the feel of the new tyres is very different and where he struggled to get the tyre into the narrow working window last year, he now has a bigger target to aim for. So too, of course, do all the other drivers, but this should at least put him on more of a par with his peers.
However, being able to develop the McLaren to his taste could be where he gets the edge.
Last year, Button had to adapt the way he drove the car to suit the tyres but this is an approach he does not believe in. He insists: “I think (my driving style) is actually the quickest way, so long as the car can be made to work that way.”
To that end, he says his input on development last year was “massively important” and he indicated in pre-season interviews that the new McLaren has indeed been designed around that style.
That is something he was able to do when he was at Brawn, where he helped the former Honda design team create a dominant machine (albeit helped by an abundance of rear downforce thanks to the double diffuser) and went on to take his as-now only world title triumph.
Back then he showed he is one of the fastest drivers if the car suits him – and the new McLaren should give him the potential to demonstrate that once again.
That’s why this could be his time. Now he needs to take it.