Jenson Button is renowned for his smooth driving style, making a single adjustment into the corner and one more out. This fact is indubitable. What is a little more tenuous are Jenson Button’s ‘legendary’ tyre management skills, and his ability to make tyres last laps longer than other drivers. I've spoken to many people, including team engineers who believe it. To many observers it seems completely logical that one talent leads to another, but I’ve always found this train of thought a little questionable.
Now I’m sure it’s true that he tends to be a little easier on his tyres – Monaco 2009 was a classic example where Jenson was one of the few able to make his super soft tyres work. Both the Brawn GP cars and Vettel started on the super softs, and after about 12 laps, Vettel was lapping 4 seconds slower. But the ability to utilise a tyre, and the ability to make a tyre last aren’t necessarily the same thing.
|Monaco 2009 - Kind to softies.|
For Jenson, this season and the last have been characterised by a conservative attitude to tyres, always doing his best to eke out as much life from a set of tyres as possible.
When McLaren decide to split strategy, it’s always Jenson who ends up staying out, and it rarely works for him.
And apart from a somewhat fortuitous (albeit not undeserved) podium in Malaysia, this season has been generally poor. Observe;
In Australia, he was tucked up behind Massa before incurring a drive through penalty, failed to hold up Vettel for any great length of time, passed a few slow-ish cars and ended up finishing sixth. Contrast this to Lewis, who managed to hold onto second despite having a broken car.
In Malaysia, he managed to finish an impressive second, but only after Alonso and Hamilton took each other out of contention.
In China, he qualified a remarkable second, managing to pip Hamilton. However, he managed to royally screw his race up, after pitting in the Red Bull box, losing precious time and track position to Vettel, and nailing the coffin of his race. This was only compounded when Hamilton managed to pass him, and win the race. This compared starkly to Jenson being passed by Webber in the final laps. Clearly, tyre management was the issue here, and Jenson lost out badly.
Finally, we reach Turkey. The perceived wisdom was that four stops was the way to go, and at the end of the race, this was certainly demonstrated. In the top 10, three drivers made three stops. Button, who finished sixth (after starting there), Buemi who finished ninth (and started 16th) and Kobayashi in tenth (who started 22nd).
Jenson has under achieved this season, compared to his team-mate. He’s always been there or thereabouts, but he’s totally failed to outperform the car as he previously has managed, and I’m convinced that his attitude to tyres is the problem.
The nature of Pirelli’s this season seems to be that they will fall off a cliff at some point, causing the drivers to lose significant speed. This in itself shouldn’t be a particular problem, as previously defensive driving would normally be enough to keep a faster driver behind. However, with the advent of DRS this has meant that defending against a faster car is much more difficult, if not impossible. Which means that while Jenson tools around protecting his tyres, everyone else slips past using the DRS. In China, Webber and Hamilton both snuck past on the pit straight after having managed to use the DRS to close up on him (both were magnificent overtakes, mind) while in Turkey Hamilton and Rosberg both managed to slip past in the DRS zone (less magnificent overtakes).
|Mercedes DRS is widely considered the most efficient|
The other problem is that the hard tyres are not hard tyres in the sense people are used to, something Pirelli are aiming to rectify. In previous seasons, the Bridgestone hards were slower than the softs but also lasted much longer. This year, however, the hards are slower than the softs but drop off just as quickly. This calls into question the wisdom of a driver like Button attempting to make the hard tyres last for 19 laps, when he could probably manage such a feat with the softs, and be a second a lap quicker.
In addition, conservative driving of the Button variety doesn’t necessarily seem to be the key to maintaining a Pirelli. Tyre degradation occurs mainly due to friction occurring on the tyres, detaching rubber from them. The key to this is cornering.
There are a few things we need to know before preceeding;
1) The key to maintaining tyres is not causing them to grind against the surface. This can be in planes both parallel (wheels locking under breaking) and perpendicular (sliding whilst cornering) to the motion of the car.
2) The formula for downforce is D = 0.5 * (WS * F * AoA) * F * p * V2. For our purposes we can consider everything to be a constant, aside from D (downforce) and V (velocity). D ∞ V2
So, the key to downforce is speed, and the key to not chewing up your tyres is having enough downforce through a corner that the car drifts as little as possible. Greater adherence to the ground means less drifting in relation to the intended direction. We can extrapolate this to show that the key to maintaining your tyres is maintaining speed through the corners.
At this point, it should start to become obvious why a driver like Jenson is having a much less successful time maintaining his tyres than everyone expected. The most common method of preserving tyre life is to drive a bit slower, but this year, that doesn’t seem to work. Because Jenson isn’t carrying enough speed through corners, he is drifting more, and causing his tyres to suffer just as much degradation as anyone else’s.
Incidentally, this fact also leads to another worrying discovery. The BBC showed a brilliant piece today (see video above) comparing Webber and Vettel’s qualifying laps side by side, and it was evident that his main advantage over his teammate was carrying more speed through corners. It can be no coincidence that Vettel has generally needed one less stop than his teammate in every race. Even in Turkey, his stop was purely precautionary, and it turned out unnecessary.
Combine a man who is quick through the corners with an ultra downforce efficient car, give him some tyres that degrade primarily through application of lateral friction and you have a terrifying prospect. As people are discovering this year.
Hamilton is another driver who carries speed through corners excellently, and he seems to be quite the match for Button in tyre preservation this year.
It seems as though Jenson has let all the talk in recent years of his smooth style and tyre preservation force him to make them his most prominent attribute, rather than a handy part of his arsenal. Ever since the eighth race of 2009 where he started to bottle up, he has been a changed driver. For the first third of 2009, he was a sight to behold, winning races from all over the track, pumping in the laps when they mattered and flowing with the circuit, all without a care in the world. But then, up against his home crowd he started to bottle it, and withdraw into his shell. With thoughts of the world championship in mind, and a massive lead to protect, he adopted a conservative style that he has rarely since dropped. Brazil and Abu Dhabi ’09, and China and Monza ’10 aside.
With his entire driving style geared towards maintaining tyres, and sacrificing speed he is going nowhere.
Therefore, I postulate that in order for my favourite driver in my favourite team to win races, he’s going to have to start driving more aggressively. He’s going to have to start attacking the corners, and keeping as much speed through them as he can. When this is combined with his smooth, efficient input style, it should work to great effect and I think we can expect to see the winning driver emerge once more.