An accidental prelude to the most important change in Formula One for 2011 resulted in the most exquisite pass in the 2010 season. Before Grand Prix racing kicks off for another year this Sunday, come and savor the dismantling of Fernando Alonso by Jenson Button at the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix.
What made last year’s race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve special was the unusually heavy tire wear. With the exception of wet races, 2010 cars were making one obligatory stop for fresh tires per race, but the track in Montreal had recently been resurfaced, and the new asphalt had a particular appetite for racing rubber. The result was a mad shuffle in the pits, drivers making 3–4 stops over the 70 laps of what thus became a very entertaining race.
For 2011, Formula One’s long-time tire supplier Bridgestone has been replaced by Pirelli with the explicit mandate to produce tires that will wear out faster. A strange request from a tire manufacturer, and no doubt one that required a number of Italian engineers to swallow their pride and go make inferior product, but the end result may be more races like Canada, and more passes like the one Jenson Button made on lap 56. It must be said that passes in Formula One are like goals in soccer, emerging violently from a number of controllable and uncontrollable parameters, but even if Button’s pass of Alonso was a result not of tires but of corner geometry, one may hope that we’ll see more of the same.
For it was the very best of what Formula One can be. It’s worth watching the action frame by frame (and ignoring the commentary, which lags by eons). It is right after the cars emerge from Turn 2 that Button begins to set up his move. On the short straight between Turns 2 and 3, he realizes the trouble Alonso is in because of the slower cars ahead of him and the particular geometry of the six corners they’re about to take. In the braking zone for Turn 3, he creeps up on the Ferrari ever so slightly. Between Turns 3 and 6, he keeps his distance, waiting for the opportunity to make his move. In the slow combination of Turns 6 and 7, the leading cars bunch up and Alonso flicks the Ferrari left to pass them on the exit of Turn 7. It is here that Button pounces. He slipstreams his McLaren behind the Ferrari, follows it as Alonso passes the slower cars ahead, then pops out from behind and accelerates past him down the straight between Turn 7 and 8. He ties up his move by the end of the straight and leads the pack into Turn 8, a position he would finish the race in: second behind teammate Lewis Hamilton for McLaren’s third and last 1–2 finish in eight races, the high point of a waning season.
Jalopnik reader Alex Nikiforov attended the race and witnessed Button’s move:
I got to see the pass Button on Alonso through the lens of the Nikon D90 camera that I borrowed from my colleague, and yes it was really, really great—the stands erupted on many occasions.
It’s subtle, elegant, clever, calculating, and it makes you realize that a pass is an elaborate construction built corner by corner, lap by lap, then executed in a fraction of the right second. If Pirelli’s fragile new tires give us more of the same, we will all be able to thank them for their great advances—in engineering inferiority.