After six dry races, Formula One was more than ready for a wet Grand Prix in Montréal. What we got was no ordinary wet race. It was the mother of all wet races, a deep sea battle to see if Sebastian Vettel is man or, indeed, machine. Warning: spoilers.
There are several factors that make most wet races brilliant. Hunting for grip on the tarmac has a way of separating the great from the very good. The sport’s greatest champions—think Jackie Stewart, Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher—were usually masters of rain-hit circuits. Then there’s the shuffle with tire strategies, the need for lightning-quick calls on full wet, intermediate, or slick tires, and the fact that there is more than one correct line to take in a wet corner, which allows for overtaking.
The circuit named after Gilles Villeneuve, situated on a man-made island in the St. Lawrence River, is usually host to great races. Last year was no exception. It was here that Jenson Button pulled off the greatest pass of the entire season, when he overtook Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari for second place behind his teammate Lewis Hamilton.
It wasn’t shaping up to be a great weekend for McLaren after qualification, which was summarized by the BBC’s Jake Humphrey as an hour when all the cars drive around on track and Sebastian Vettel takes pole position. Sebastian Vettel did, of course, take pole position, by one of his usual brutal margins, but his opposition wasn’t Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. It was Felipe Massa in the Ferrari, who got pipped to second on the grid by his teammate Fernando Alonso in the last minute.
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Qualification was dry. The race wasn’t. The cars took off behind the safety car, Bernd Mayländer’s burbling Mercedes–Benz SLS AMG, and it wasn’t until the fifth lap that the action got going for real. Mark Webber almost mirrored his last wet race—the 2010 Korean Grand Prix, when he made an unforced error that cost him the championship—when he spun off on the first lap after an aggressive move by Lewis Hamilton left his McLaren sliding and understeering into the Red Bull’s sidepod. Undamaged but down the grid, Webber rejoined the race.
Lewis Hamilton was on a roll. He picked off his teammate and was about to pick off a rejuvenated Michael Schumacher—always wonderful in the rain—when the Mercedes forced him off the track in Turn 10, the hairpin, allowing Button to regain his position. Hamilton would have none of that. In the heavy rain,
closing in on Button, he tried a move between Button and a wall. Button didn’t see him coming, stayed on the racing line, and Hamilton’s McLaren slammed into the wall, damaging his left rear suspension (right), and ending his race. Button, meanwhile, pitted for intermediates: his second pitstop after he was hit with a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the safety car in the opening laps.
Soon after, the rain got heavy enough to bring out the safety car again, and the drivers who’d pitted for intermediates were in trouble. On lap 25, in the increasingly torrential rain, the entire race was in trouble. The red flag came out, and it stayed out for over two hours.
The restart saw Jenson Button involved in yet another collision. On lap 38, Fernando Alonso tried to overtake him. Button stayed on the line, Alonso crashed into his sidepod, then spun off the track and beached his Ferrari. Button limped into the pits with a puncture, and rejoined the race dead last. There were 30 laps remaining, Vettel comfortably in the lead.
What happened then was a drive for the ages. On a drying track, Jenson Button began going through the field like butter (left). There was another pitstop for him, his sixth, for slick tires, but it was looking increasingly like a repeat of his performance at Monaco two weeks ago, where a crash and the red flag that followed put paid to what could have been an epic fight for the lead between Vettel, Alonso and Button. Up front, Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber were battling it out for second, until the drying track and the movable rear wing ran Schumacher up to the limit of his defensive talents, and Webber took second.
Time was running out. A Grand Prix can run—excluding red-flagged periods—for no longer than two hours, a time limit that was fast approaching.
Jenson Button overtook Michael Schumacher. Jenson Button overtook Mark Webber. Jenson Button overtook Mark Webber. Jenson Button overtook Michael Schumacher. Jenson Button was driving like a force from out there, catching up to Sebastian Vettel (above), but he couldn’t get within one second, the gap required to operate the movable rear wing.
There was 1:40 on the clock on this 74-second circuit as Button and Vettel launched into the ultimate lap. Sebastian Vettel had not made a mistake since the 2010 Singapore Grand Prix, when he’d lost the lead to Alonso after the start. Button was catching him, but he was up ahead, guiding Kinky Kylie home on the dry racing line, then he made the tiniest mistake going into a corner, ran wide, saved it, and then he wasn’t up ahead, because Jenson Button was up ahead, he pounced on the error he’d forced on Vettel to commit, and crossed the finish line first after four hours, four minutes and 39 seconds, the longest Formula One race in history. He screamed. We all would have.
You should watch this race. Maybe watch it again. Jenson Button’s tenth Grand Prix victory was about everything that makes Formula One great. Forcing near-invincible opponents into mistakes, driving with utmost precision in terrible conditions and never, ever giving up. He
came from last to first over the space of 30 laps. He changed tires to suit the conditions, then changed them again. He survived two rear-enders. He made six pit stops, compared to Vettel’s three. It was a magnificent performance to watch.
Down the grid, Michael Schumacher drove a great race to finish fourth, way above his lackluster Mercedes’s speed, and Vitaly Petrov finished fifth while his temporary teammate Nick Heidfeld crashed out. Rounding out the points were Felipe Massa, Kamui Kobayashi (up in second place for many laps), Jaime Alguersuari (who gained 16 places after starting 24th, possibly saving his seat in the Toro Rosso), Rubens Barrichello, and Sébastien Buemi. Force India’s Paul di Resta would have been up there with Massa, but he crashed out three laps from the end, a pretty good first wet race from Formula One’s most interesting rookie since Sebastian Vettel.
With his win, Jenson Button leapfrogged both Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber to take second in the championship with 101 points. Vettel leads with 161, then it’s Mark Webber in third with 94, Lewis Hamilton in fourth with 85, and Fernando Alonso in fifth with 69.
The next race will be in two weeks’s time at the hopeless Valencia Street Circuit, then it’s off to wonderful Silverstone. Sebastian Vettel will most likely win this all, but the season has just gotten much, much better.
The 2011 Formula One Season in Crayola
Australia | Malaysia | China | Turkey | Spain | Monaco | Canada | Europe | Britain | Germany | Hungary | Belgium | Italy | Singapore | Japan | South Korea | India | Abu Dhabi | Brazil
Photography by Clive Rose/Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Paul Gilham/Getty Images and Ker Robertson/Getty Images. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Illustration by Peter Orosz and Natalie Polgar.