Jenson Button had his answer ready. “Those are your words not mine,” he said with a smile when asked whether his second place finish at Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix had silenced the doubters who said he could not handle the strain of being the long-time championship leader. “The talk of pressure never came out of my mouth.”
As the shadows lengthened on a glorious sunny afternoon at the Autodromo Parque Monza, Button knew he had made his point on the track.
Rubens Barrichello may ultimately have claimed victory at the Italian circuit to move to within 14 points of his Brawn team-mate, but for Button, who finished less than three seconds behind the Brazilian, the weekend was all about getting back on the horse. And he did it in some style.
The Englishman’s first podium finish in six races was as controlled as it was timely. Starting sixth on the grid, an “aggressive” opening lap allowed him to stay in touch with Barrichello, who began one place ahead but moved up to fourth after sweeping past McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen off the line.
Button did not panic and managed to follow suit at the second Lesmo as Kovalainen lost ground trying to retake Barrichello.
“It was a much-needed move as without that I probably would have finished third or fourth,” he admitted.
Thereafter, it was simply a question of two different race strategies.
McLaren’s pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Force India’s Adrian Sutil were all on two-stoppers, which basically meant they were involved in their own race within a race.
When all three of them emerged behind the Brawns after their second round of pit-stops the die was effectively cast.
Hamilton made a concerted effort to catch Button and had closed to within 1.5 seconds by the final lap, only to crash out spectacularly when running wide on the exit kerb of the first Lesmo.
“That was the way I was raised. I was raised to never give up,” Hamilton shrugged.
“If we were leading or fighting for the world championship it would be a slightly different scenario, and perhaps I would have put a lot more thought into just getting the points.
“But I still wanted to win. I wanted to catch them up and overtake, so I gave it my absolute all. I’m just a racer. I’m more a hard-core racer than most people anticipate.”
The world champion eventually classified 12th with Räikkönen, having made judicious use of his KERS-energy boost button off to pass Sutil right at the beginning, giving the thronged tifosi something to shout by coming through to claim third place.
The upshot is that the title race, for so long a four-horse race between the Brawns and Red Bulls, now looks like being a straightforward slugfest between Button and Barrichello.
Red Bull had a terrible day, with Mark Webber crashing out on the first lap and Sebastian Vettel picking up a solitary point.
Button admitted it would be easier to fend off just one challenger rather than three.
“Concentrating on one person, for sure, has to be a little bit easier,” Button said. “I’ve got to stay as close to Rubens as possible, that’s the way you should look at it but also I want to win races. I don’t want to come here and just try to finish behind Rubens.
“We’re working together, we’ve had to pull our car to the front, we will see how it goes from here, but I think we’re still going to be sharing information because there’s always the possibility that the Red Bulls will be strong, you never know, and we might have some bad luck.”
The Somerset-born driver assiduously avoided all mention of the word “pressure”. “I know I’m in a very good situation, I’m driving the best car on the grid at the moment, and I’ve probably got one of the most competitive team-mates on the grid at the moment.
“So there are lots of positives and a couple of negatives there but why shouldn’t I be positive? I’ve got a 14-point lead with four races to go.
“That’s it really. I’m sure you’re right that I have controlled the pressure that I’ve had for the last two or three races but those are your words, not mine.”
So ends the European season. Thirteen races down, four to go. As the battleground prepares to shift again to the Far East, with back-to-back races in Singapore and Japan next up on the calendar, Button’s challenge is again back on track. And then there were two.