Something Interesting Is Happening Over At McLaren
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading this blog, but there is more to Formula One than just Fernando Alonso (whose skill set I shamelessly blog about), Sebastian Vettel (who I have immense respect for, but shamelessly give a hard time to), Ferrari, Red Bull and the supporting cast of Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg, and of course Kimi Raikkonen.
You can’t really argue with focusing on these protagonists since two out of the last three years it has come down to Alonso vs. Vettel, the history of Ferrari vs. the cool youth of Red Bull, with a few of the other drivers mixing things up from race to race. It’s looking like more of the same this year, although it might end up Raikkonen vs. Vettel instead of Alonso, or possibly even Rosberg if Mercedes finally gets their tire issues sorted out come the end of the year.
However, there are twenty-two drivers in all, more if you count the reserves on Friday, and eleven teams in total that make up this wonderful sport that I am absolutely over the moon for. On race day there are a lot of stories happening beyond the top six drivers. If you’re a midfielder or even a back marker you’re still racing someone and beating your competition to the line is just as intense and exciting as it is at the front.
Right now there is a competition between two of the twenty-two drivers on the grid that is quietly heating up. If you take a look over at the veteran and the rookie at McLaren, you will see something just as exciting as the race between our championship points leaders. A fascinating inter-team battle between Jenson Button and Sergio Perez is shaping up quite nicely as we head into the second half of the season. Inter-team rivalries can be the most interesting kind of competition since it is the only case where you can argue that the machinery is equal and any differences in results you’re seeing are clearly due to driver skill.
The beginning of this competition happened publicly at the Grand Prix of Bahrain. Button was coming under attack from Perez and that is when everyone in TV land heard this transmission. “Tell him to calm down”, said Button, referring to Perez. I sincerely dislike hearing a race car driver utter these words, or anything similar, “He won’t let me pass”, “What’s he doing?”, referring to one’s teammate. It cheapens the sport in this bloggers opinion. It is called racing for a reason, for chris sake. At times like this I want to say, “Jenson, here is your job description just in case you missed it the first time around: The driver behind is to throw everything and the kitchen sink at you to get by, and it is your job to throw everything and the kitchen sink, plus the fridge, and the dishwasher back to make sure he doesn’t.” It would appear the line was drawn at this race despite the team sit-down in which it was all sorted out. Yeah, right.
On the surface the team dynamic should be straightforward. Button is a world champion (although one could say he had quite a bit of help from the double diffuser and the FIA ruling in that winning year) and definitely the team’s number one. Sergio Perez, on the other hand, is not quite a rookie but still a young gun with a lot of learning to do. He showed enough promise at Sauber to be hired into McLaren, definitely a top team. Whenever there is a change in drivers on a team, both immediately have something to prove to each other, to the team, and especially to themselves.
Button has to establish very quickly that he is McLaren’s guy, the team’s number one. He knows the in’s and out’s and he is the one the team will be depending on for feedback, development, results. The new guy Perez wants to quickly let everyone (including the driver on the other side of the garage) know that he will be playing second fiddle to no one. And although Perez might not know where every hallway or door leads to over at the McLaren Technology Center, he doesn’t have to. All he has to do is stay with, or on occasion beat, his senior teammate.
Let’s take a look at that. Here is the tale of the tape:
Jenson Button – 33 points, ranked 10th and qualified higher up the grid 6 times.
Sergio Perez – 16 points, ranked 12th and qualified higher up the grid 3 times.
It would appear from these stats that Button has the measure of his new teammate. Jenson Button is after all a world champion, a very intelligent driver, and already comfortable in the team. He seems (mostly) like a gentleman and a good sport and I’ve been a fan since before the double-diffuser days. I even admired his name enough that I took it for my son. (Jenson, not Button). When Button was Hamilton’s teammate, both very accomplished and tenured drivers, he out-scored Hamilton one season and stayed close until the very end in another. With only a short tenure on the team and against one of F1’s finest, you wouldn’t expect Perez to be anywhere near the 2009 World Champ.
Then why is it that commonly when the TV producers cut to the midfield I see Perez the rookie all over Button the team leader like a cheap suit? There has been more than one occasion when Perez has very easily disposed of Button and I don’t think we can chalk it up to the tires or a different race strategy each and every time.
The youngster also impressed me at Monaco. If my memory serves me correctly he got past Button very early on in the race without any real difficulty. Then he notably took on Alonso and Raikkonen. No need to rehash it and I will admit Perez’s passing efforts were a bit too ambitious, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. He was doing the thing that we all want to see more of in F1, passing. He received a load of bad press after the race, but if this were Senna, Mansell, Schumacher, Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel, wouldn’t we be praising them for the same effort? I wonder. I admit I like the fiery Mexican. Yes his race craft needs a little work, but I will take a fast, attacking, somewhat reckless driver any day over one that is not. This kind of driver can be made into a non-reckless, fast, attacking driver. It cannot be said about the reverse.
The box scores (Americanism alert!) tell one side of the story in F1, but it is the racing on the track that tells another. It is the story on the track that interests me more. How many places did a driver gain on the start? How did so and so make that pass stick, what was the gap on lap 21 and what is the gap now? Where did a driver start and where did they finish?
Perez has been on a roll starting with Bahrain, out-qualifying Button for three races in a row and finishing ahead of him two out of four races if we discount Monaco and the tire debacle of Britain. Here is the data:
Bahrain – Perez starts two places behind Button, finishes four places ahead.
Spain – Perez starts six places ahead, finishes one place behind Button.
Monaco – Out qualifies Button by two cars, finishes back in sixteenth due to the coming together with Kimi. But it is worth noting that Jenson’s McLaren was one of the first cars he disposed of in the early part of the race and he was running in sixth at the time of wanting to get punched in the nose by Kimi.
Canada – Perez again qualifies better, twelfth to Buttons fourteenth, and finishes just in front of Button.
Britain – Tire issues for Perez.
Germany – Perez qualifies thirteenth but wastes no time in getting the best of Button at the start of the race. Turn one on lap two. Ouch. Eventually finishes 8th to Button’s sixth.
By my analysis, Perez not only has Button in his sights, he’s breathing down his neck and gaining on him. As Formula 1 heads into the second half of the season, I see this particular battle having three outcomes. One, Button gets on with the program and continues outscoring Perez and puts him in his place, so to speak. Everyone over at McLaren chalk this season up to a bad design direction, scrap it and start a new for 2014 with a new engine formula. Two, the second half is similar to the first with Button out-scoring Perez for the majority of the races but also possibly losing to and certainly getting passed by Perez at three or four of the races left on the calendar. Then there is a last possibility and this is the one that I am most interested in, pot-stirrer that I am. Perez starts to marry his throw-caution-to-the-wind driving style with a more metered approach, gets some good luck and soundly beats Button overall in the second half of the season. A star is born. It may not be quite as impressive as the big starts that Alonso, Hamilton, or Vettel had immediately upon entering the sport, but it would be impressive nonetheless.
This won’t be the first time a new young driver has gotten the measure of his senior teammate. Think back to Kimi coming into McLaren and giving it to David Coulthard right away, Alonso on Giancarlo Fisichella back when Lotus was called Benetton. How about Hamilton turning the tables on World Champion Alonso, that couldn’t have felt too keen. What about Vettel sticking it to Webber who had already been at Red Bull for two years? He didn’t just beat Webber all season; he took home the Driver’s Title. That had to be painful for Webber to watch.
Well, Formula One is a young man’s game pure and simple. It comes down sometimes to just tenths of a second but times that by fifty plus laps and you can see how that small margin can be a big difference between teammates in the same car.
It will be interesting to see how these two, Button and Perez respond as the season finishes out. They will both be back in the same car to do it all over again next year, so how they finish up against the other will be paramount for each of these drivers. For Button and Perez there is a more important championship than the one Vettel, Alonso, possibly Rosberg and yes of course Kimi, are driving for. This is the one against their teammate.
The McLaren inter-team championship battle is not going to get the headlines like the FIA Drivers’ Cup will, but these two drivers are no less invested in it than Vettel and Alonso are in the big title. So while all of my attention will be on every little detail that goes on in F1 concerning Red Bull, Ferrari, Vettel, Fernando, and yes of course Kimi, I will also be keeping a close eye on Perez and Button to see which one rises to the occasion. Which one can deliver the goods? Which one deserves to be called the champion of McLaren’s inter-team championship?
-jp- (I wounder how many doors there actually are at McLaren’s Tech Center anyway?)