Button's masterclass after Buemi's wheels fell off: the bizarre, brilliant 2010 Chinese GP


Exploding suspension, multiple race leaders and plenty of wet weather — the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix had it all, but Jenson Button was the one to conquer the chaos

2010 Chinese Grand Prix Jenson Button

A race to remember: Button's ballistic Chinese GP

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The defining moment of the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix came not during the dramatic race itself, but in the very first practice session of the weekend.

As Sébastien Buemi approached the Turn 14 hairpin at over 200mph, the right upright suspension on his Toro Rosso failed, shearing off both front wheels and leaving him as a complete passenger as his car hurtled towards a nearby gravel trap.

Desperately braking and instinctively trying to steer — despite the ejection of both wheels — his car crunched against the barrier before Buemi emerged from the cockpit of his crumpled machine with a look of bewilderment.

In the aftermath of the crash Buemi was remarkably calm — encouraging press to “not think about it anymore” — and was only enraged by his lack of practice time as mechanics tried to reassemble his car.

His race weekend went from bad to worse after he was involved in spectacular opening-lap clash with Vitantonio Liuzzi‘s Force India, as it skidded over wet grass at the Turn 6 hairpin and landed almost on top of Buemi’s crash helmet. Again, the Frenchman leapt from the cockpit without a scrape and a safety car was quickly deployed.

But, while Buemi’s brief race weekend appearance attracted worldwide interest and the footage has become a meme for any sudden disaster ever since, what followed was an even better spectacle, as Jenson Button put in one of his greatest-ever grand prix performances.

The reigning world champion had already showed new team-mate Lewis Hamilton that he would be no walkover, after arriving at McLaren from his victorious season at Brawn GP. He’d won for the team in Australia quickly, and had quickly acquired a deft touch in batting away questions about how well he got on with the feisty Hamilton. Both drivers would later describe their relationship as “cut-throat”.

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Hamilton was on the back foot for the fourth round of the season, arriving in China without a win and amid complaints from other drivers about his weaving in the previous race. But it was Button who qualified ahead of his team-mate on the third row of the grid — outqualified by MercedesNico Rosberg, Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso and the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. With the threat of intermittent rain looming, success would not be determined by a quick start, but instead by a cool and steady head.

Button was the faster of the two McLarens off the line and maintained his position over Hamilton. Ahead, Alonso jumped the start, giving him a temporary lead over Webber, a slow starting Vettel and Rosberg. But after Buemi’s lap 1 crash all was about to change.

Fernando Alonso leads the Chinese Grand prix 2010

Alonso leads into Turn 1, while the field squabbles behind

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As the field trundled behind the safety car, reports of rain came over the radio and the prospect of a cheap pitstop was too compelling for most. Both Red Bulls, Alonso and Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher were called into the pits for intermediate tyres; Hamilton got the message so late he missed the entrance and clattered over the divide between the track and pitlane.

Button made the opposite decision. “The call to stay out was a moment of feeling rather than seeing, which a lot of drivers don’t do,” Button later stated. “It’s tempting to see rain and think, ‘It’s time to come in.’ But you need to feel the circuit.”

Button’s famous, almost supernatural ability to second-guess the weather put him second at the restart behind Rosberg, who had also remained on slicks, and the McLaren driver set off in pursuit of the Mercedes.

Behind them, the wheels were coming off Hamilton’s race — in less dramatic fashion than they had done on Buemi’s Toro Rosso, but in similarly demoralising fashion. With heavy rain holding off, the intermediates overheated and Hamilton was back in the pits after five laps for a set of slicks, arriving at the entrance side-by-side with Sebastian Vettel to begin a bizarre pitlane dice. Slow pitstops for Red Bull and McLaren saw both cars released simultaneously, and they ran side by side along the pitlane until Hamilton finally had to give way to Vettel. Seven laps into the race, he was 50sec and nine cars behind his team-mate.

As Rosberg continued to lead Button, Hamilton’s fightback provided compelling viewing. He and Vettel slithered up the order on the cold and slightly damp track until they reached Adrian Sutil’s Force India. Vettel made his move on the outside of the Turn 14 hairpin, Sutil blocked and Hamilton swooped to the wide open inside to pass both.

Next on Hamilton’s list was Schumacher. As he duelled with the seven-time champion and the rain began to fall, so Button had a break in his battle with the other Mercedes. Rosberg’s 19 lap-old slicks let him down under braking into the slippery Turn 11 and he ran wide, giving Button a run into the lead.

Two laps later, and it was too wet even for weather-whisperer Button. He joined the other slick-runners in changing to intermediates and rejoined the circuit with a comfortable lead. But within seconds, racing luck played against him.

Jenson Button leads Nico Rosberg China 2010

Button’s lead grows, but not for long…

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Further back in the pack Jaime Alguersuari collided with the rear of Bruno Senna’s Hispania, unable to see it in the increasing cloud of spray, and damaged his Toro Rosso‘s front wing. The Spaniard then ran over it in the pitlane, scattering debris and triggering a safety car, reducing Button’s advantage to mere meters.

Nevertheless, he held on at the restart, but wouldn’t have time to pull out a gap to his team-mate. Hamilton set about climbing from seventh place with a vengeance, fending off two tenacious Red Bulls at the restart then passing Schumacher as well the Renaults of Vitaly Petrov and Robert Kubica in the space of five laps. He fought with Rosberg, then, on lap 39, pitted for a fresh set of intermediates, which gave enough extra pace to pass Rosberg when he pitted two laps later.

It left the McLaren pair running first and second and after his intense charges through the grid, Hamilton suddenly looked like a contender for victory.

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The rain continued to fall in intermittently heavy showers, grip levels varied and drivers continued to slide off the track. Engulfed in clouds of spray, even the leader was disorientated. “Give me the gap to Lewis,” radioed Button as the lap counter tumbled. “I can’t see him.”

Little did the reigning champ know that Hamilton was falling further and further back from his furious pace — despite his best efforts. In the closing stages, Button reeled off an almost-flawless sequence of laps, each 0.5sec faster than his team-mate, which saw him reach the chequered flag first with a comfortable winning margin.

The timesheets suggest a close call as Button was only 1.5sec clear of Hamilton as he crossed the finish line, but his advantage was reduced drastically as he pulled alongside the pitwall to celebrate wildly with those hanging from it.

From fifth on the grid, Button had brilliantly conquered the rain and proved an equal match for his prestigious team-mate. As Martin Brundle said on the day: “Lewis Hamilton has driven a great race, but Jenson was just that little bit better”.

It was perhaps Button’s best performance in the rain. At least until the following year’s Canadian Grand Prix