How Jenson Button led half a lap and won – the 2011 Canadian GP


Six pitstops, the slowest-ever grand prix, longest–ever race duration and half a lap led – just how did Button do it? McLaren's former PR guru Matt Bishop recalls JB's finest [four] hour[s]

Jenson Button Canada 2011

He broke records for slowest and longest-ever GP, took out two rivals and made six pitstops, but still somehow Button won

Grand Prix Photo

Jenson Button’s famously smooth driving style has become synonymous with victory in changeable conditions.

A debut win at a treacherous Hungaroring in 2006 was followed by wet/dry masterclasses in Australia and China in 2010.

Ten years ago today though, the Frome Flyer took what many consider his best win at a monsooned Montreal in 2011, sealing his reputation as the F1 master of wet weather movements.

“It was then I began to see he was brilliant in those conditions”

Button also did so while breaking the F1 records for the number of pitstops made on the way to a win, longest duration of any grand prix and lowest-ever average speed.

Aston Martin Communications Director Matt Bishop, then holding the same position for McLaren, witnessed it firsthand: “Jenson was a remarkable racing driver in many ways. It was then I began to see he was brilliant in those conditions.”

That year’s Canadian Grand Prix was one of the most chaotic ever held. It says something about the rate of attrition and driving error in that race that Button himself made so many mistakes, yet still had it acclaimed by many as his “greatest drive”.

Button qualifying

Drag-heavy car in qualifying left Button seventh on the grid

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It had been a solid if not spectacular start to the season for the Woking team prior to Montreal:

“I don’t think we expected it to be the class of the field,” says Bishop, “We knew that [Sebastian] Vettel was beginning to look unstoppably quick. And we knew we weren’t going to be even on the first couple of rows in qualifying.”

McLaren went for a high-downforce approach on Saturday, running a rear-wing which Button later described as a “barn door”.

The team’s resultant lack of straight-line pace meant that Lewis Hamilton lined up fifth with Button further back in seventh.

Come raceday, weather conditions were not ideal for racing – but were favourable for McLaren’s high-downforce approach. Rain had fallen throughout the day, leaving a wet track riddled with devious puddles, streams and standing water.

“It was cold – that was the big issue with moving on to inters” Jenson Button

Another issue was maintaining tyre temperature, as Button noted in a feature with Sky last year. “It was cold. That was the big issue with moving on to inters. We were worried about the amount of standing water on the circuit.”

After four laps dutifully following the safety car round, the field was unleashed for a rolling start.

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel made a slightly haphazard getaway, almost allowing the following Alonso to get past, as Button tried to stay steer clear of the chaos in front of him.

As Bishop recounts, “It was a pretty so-so start to the race, but then…”

Hamilton understeered into the Mark Webber at Turn Two, turning the Red Bull around.

Button calmly slipped by both of them, picking up two places and moving into fifth.

Hamilton Webber Canada 2011

Hamilton tips out Webber after the start


The Mclaren pair, joined by Michael Schumacher, would pass and repass each other for the next two laps, up until the race’s first big moment.

Hamilton got a run on Button out of the final chicane but was unsighted by his team-mate ahead.

He moved to take the inside line, with Button unknowingly squeezing him and the two touched; Hamilton’s car snapping viciously into the pit wall.

As sparks flew, it was Lewis who came off worse, his right-rear suspension appearing wrecked.

Button hadn’t come out of it unscathed either, and he limped back to pits to fix a right-rear puncture, dropping to 14th. Hamilton was out of the race altogether.

Bishop described this moment as “the thing that you dread” in any F1 team, envisaging a full-blown PR disaster: “In my position as the communications director of a major Formula 1 team, with two high profile World Champions driving the cars, that’s your absolute nightmare scenario.

“When they shunt each other, they’re probably going to be reasonably difficult to control in terms of what they’re going to say, particularly to the British press, because they’re two British world champions.

“The press had found their story at that point, I thought.”

The on-track damage was limited by the safety car coming out, bunching the pack up and aiding a potential fightback.

Button decided to take on intermediate tyres, something that would pay dividends as he made his way back through the pack.

Racing resumed at the end of lap 12, but Button quickly found himself with another setback.

Hamilton Button Canada 2011

Hamilton’s Mclaren is mortally wounded, whilst Button leaves the scene of the crime

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The sole-remaining McLaren had been speeding under the safety car so, after hauling himself up to 10th after one lap of free running, he now found himself back in the pits to serve a drive-through penalty.

Reset again. Button was now down to 15th. Time to climb back up the order.

Finding his inters working perfectly, the Brit passed Torro Rosso’s Sébastien Buemi on the 13th lap, before taking Rubens Barrichello, Adrian Sutil and Pastor Maldonado all in one lap on the next!

The man from Somerset really was flying, a couple of Mercedes pit stops and a pass on Force India’s Paul di Resta meaning he had gone from 15th to eighth in five laps: not bad.

Not for the first or last time, the rest of the field took Button’s progress as indication that it was time for inters.

Bishop says that the ‘Button barometer’ was often used by rivals to choose tyres: “Whenever there were volatile conditions in the grand prix, either because it was beginning to get wetter or beginning to get drier, or because there was a tyre degradation issue that was across the board, Jenson was always the one who was absolutely on it.

From the archive

“Eventually, other drivers began to realize that. You began to see ‘Jenson’s gone for inters’ [so] everyone’s bundling in for inters now or ‘Jenson thinks it’s wet enough that the full wet will be quicker than the inter now’, everyone’s going to dive into the pits.

“People would follow suit in that way, by copying Jenson’s wisdom. More than I’ve seen them do any other driver ever really.”

Lap 19 and Button got past Petrov for seventh, but then another deluge moved in. TV shots show almost zero visibility at the final hairpin, cars only coming in view at the last moment.

Not for the first time, the McLaren was quicker than most to react and came in for full wets again.

Button was looking to make his sixth-sense count once more, but it soon all came to a halt when conditions were decided to be too foul to race in.

As the cars came in, Bishop had a minefield of a PR situation on his hands.

“I remember realising that we were going to have to do interviews, which was a unique situation, halfway through a Grand Prix, to have media scrums with Jenson being interviewed by one lot of journalists and Lewis being interviewed by another.

“We had the issue of knowing that at that point the question they would be asked was ‘Your team-mate shunted you, what do you think?’”

Button weather

Conditions deteriorated to the point the race had to be stopped


In a bid to maintain team harmony, Bishop deployed a couple of white lies.

“I did a little bit of sleight of hand at that point and said to Lewis ‘We’re going to have to do interviews now, you’ll be asked about the shunt. I’ve already spoken to Jenson. He doesn’t blame you at all.’

“Then I went to Jenson and told him vice versa about Lewis.

“As a result, they spoke in a very kind of measured and statesman-like way really considering that they have had the shunt with their team-mate!”

The drivers might have been placated and eventually so was the weather, meaning that two hours and four minutes later the cars headed for the race to get back underway.

After completing eight more circuits behind the safety sar, the was field off the leash on lap 34.

“Jenson would ask questions on the radio which sometimes astounded us”

Down in 10th, Jenson disposed of Pedro de la Rosa before electing to make yet another stop, the track being dry enough now for intermediate tyres.

It was a brave move when the car was running well on its current rubber, but Bishop wasn’t surprised.

“He had a mental bandwidth available — just a bit, but enough — in order to think more analytically about what he was doing.

“Jenson would ask questions on the radio which sometimes astounded us. ‘I’ve just passed the big screen. Looks like Massa is on inters. Can you tell me why? And when he went on them?’ You’d think ‘What are you talking about? How can you do that?’ Let me tell you, very few drivers can do that.”

With the race only 50% run, the McLaren driver had already made four pitstops.

Fernando Alonso Canada 2011

Alonso trudges back to the pits after being biffed out by Button

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Jenson was yet again down the mine, now in 15th but that didn’t last the out-lap. He immediately progressed by passing Sutil and Caterham’s’s Jarno Trulli in one corner when negotiating the hairpin.

Further pitstops rivals brought Jenson up to 11th, but also into the wake of Fernando Alonso.

As the Spaniard exited the pits on cold tyres, Jenson spied an opportunity to get ahead.

The Brit put his car up the inside of the Ferrari at the first chicane, but Alonso made the decision to turn in all the same.

The pair connected and the Ferrari was spun round. Button had a front-right puncture and broken front wing, whilst Alonso was beached and out of the race.

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Halfway through the race and Button had already taken out two world champions.

The McLaren was dragged round once more to make its fifth visit to the pits. Button was dead last – he had it all to do again.

Once again, he benefitted from the safety car, which funnelled up the field in front of current wooden spoon holder Button, as Alonso’s stranded Ferrari was recovered.

And because Button was so far behind the safety-car led pack when he came out of the pits, he was able to get his tyres up to temperature by catching them up, proving massively useful when the race started again.

When the field was unleashed lap 41, the Brit wasted no time in getting past Vitantonio Liuzzi.

JB took two cars on the next lap, then swept past three more on the one after. Despite all his travails, the McLaren was now hooked up and scything through the field.

The Sauber of De la Rosa was his next victim on lap 44 before Sébastien Buemi was taken on the following tour. A Sutil pitstop promoted Button further, and a mistake by Jaime Alguersuari unblocked Button who had followed the Toro Rosso for four laps. The Brit was now back in the points.

“Button was now on a searing pace”

Lap 51 and Button spotted Webber, with new slicks, had immediately set a purple sector. The McLaren man made his final crucial choice to follow suit. Such had been his speed in moving through the field prior to his stop, he only lost two places, emerging 10th.

Pedro De la Rosa and Nico Rosberg then pitted, before Felipe Massa risked too much on a wet line to put his Ferrari into the wall. With 17 laps left, Button was now seventh.

Bishop had decamped to the paddock with McLaren team boss Ron Dennis to watch the rest of the race, the pair realising that something momentous was unfolding before them:

“Jenson began to do what he did, which is to ‘optimise’ – that’s a Ron word, isn’t it? – changeable conditions in a way that no driver I’ve worked with was able to emulate in quite the same way.”

“It became clear he was overtaking people. Quite a few people!”

As well as overtaking, his quick-thinking meant that others, reacting slower, fell behind as they made their pitstops. Button was on a searing pace, now setting fastest lap at 1min 22.759sec on lap 54.

One more time around and both Lotus cars pitted, promoting the McLaren driver to fifth. Another and Button got past Kamui Kobayashi for fourth: the progress was electrifying.

Button quickly closed up on the scrapping pair of Webber and Schumacher. The McLaren Comms Director was now struggling to conceal his excitement.

“Suddenly, it dawned on us almost at the same time. I turned to Ron and said, “F*ck me, we can win this!’

“And he said ‘Shush!’

“He was always very like that – ‘don’t tempt fate.’ That would be his attitude. It sometimes made scenario planning quite difficult, in terms of ‘How shall we celebrate this if we win this race? What are the comms initiatives that we should instigate if we win this championship?’

“‘No, no, no, don’t do that. That’s tempting fate.’”

Whatever Dennis’ superstitions, Button was beginning to look irresistible.

To further his cause, Nick Heidfeld suffered a front wing failure, running over it and crashing out – the result was one more safety car to close up the field.

At the restart, Button was caught behind the lapped car of Timo Glock, but was still was upon Webber just a few corners later. The Australian was labouring in his attempts to pass Schumacher — in this Button saw his chance.

The trio ran as a pack until the end of lap 64. The McLaren had been piling the pressure onto Webber the whole lap round, the Aussie finally cracking into the final chicane and missing it altogether.

MONTREAL, CANADA - JUNE 12: Michael Schumacher of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 12, 2011 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Button had got past Schumacher and Webber by lap 64

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

This indiscretion gave Button the perfect slipstream to get past. He still had to risk it all though, moving onto the wet line to get by. The McLaren driver kept his cool to make it work.

As Button put it: “That was a scary moment for me. I had to make my move on Webber there, had to keep my foot in on that wet track and I didn’t know if I was going to be facing the wrong way or not. Just close one eye and hope for the best.”

His sights were now firmly set on Schumacher. Getting a strong run out of the hairpin, Button passed him as they moved into the final chicane on lap 66.

One more car and the win was his. JB had come a long way from being stone last, 25 laps earlier.

The McLaren was setting fastest lap after fastest lap, and leader Vettel had to react. The two were on the limit, and the timing screens showed this. Fastest lap of the race was 1min 16.956sec set by Button on the penultimate tour. Second-fastest, on the very same lap, was Vettel at 1min 17.261. The German was responding, but not by enough.

From the archive

As Button recalled “This is the only way I was going to win the race, by putting him under pressure like this and making him push that car to the maximum.”

Time was running out though. By the final circuit, the McLaren driver had just about closed in enough on Vettel to have a chance of an overtake. The memory of these final moments is still strong for Bishop:

“I can’t talk about this without the hairs on the back of my neck standing up even now, nine years later, when we embarked on the last lap, with the Red Bull just ahead. Vettel had driven a faultless race, if it had been dry he’d have won by a mile – literally. And here we were, actually behind him! Ron and I were watching in absolute silence.”

As the team looked on with baited breath, it appeared the last chicane would be Button’s best bet of getting past.

It turned out he didn’t even need that long. With the McLaren bearing down on him, Vettel cracked, putting his slick right-rear ever so slightly on the wet line.

Television footage of this race-defining moment shows Vettel sliding out of view at the wrong angle. As the next dramatic shot pans out, the Red Bull is almost off the track and Button dashes through the gap.

The Frome Flyer was in the lead and his team was in ecstasy – even the usually unmoved Dennis:

“Ron Dennis just leapt feet like a centre-forward celebrating the winning goal in the World Cup final” Matt Bishop

“Ron just leapt feet, stuck both of his fists right up in the air like a centre-forward celebrating the winning goal in the World Cup final, and just roared, absolutely roared,” remembers Bishop, “It was one of the most emotional experiences of my career and for Ron too, [even] with his glittering career having won with Lauda, Prost, Senna, Häkkinen.”

Button had half a lap to bring it home safely on what was a drying – but still tricky – racing surface. “I’m leading the Canadian Grand Prix for half a lap,” he recalled. “I feel so much pressure on my shoulders. Now it’s ‘Do not make a mistake!’”

The McLaren man was resolute, bringing his car home for a remarkable win with the team celebrating wildly on the pitwall, with Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh declaring it as “one of the best wins in the history of F1”.

You can’t please everyone though, as one visitor made Bishop aware when congratulating the team.

“Anthony Hamilton came into where we were with a big smile on his face.

Vettel Button Canada 2011

Button hunts down Vettel


“He walked up, obviously extremely disappointed for Lewis, but gave us manly handshakes.

I said, ‘What a brilliant win, absolutely perfect!’ And then he said, ‘Well not perfect, because it would only have been perfect if Jenson had overtaken him fair and square. Remember it was only a Vettel mistake that allowed him to win.’

“‘Yes Anthony, OK.’ Technically, I suppose you could say he was correct! Let’s not quibble. It was the most wonderful race and most wonderful result.”

“Whenever there were volatile conditions in a grand prix, Jenson was always the one who was absolutely on it”

Despite a couple of prangs and a penalty, Button’s calm, measured, yet relentless approach brought the race to him. Bishop has ever since been in awe of the driving style that brought victory in Canada” “Jenson does all his laps at 99% – absolutely extraordinary in terms of that. That’s one thing that those who underestimated Jenson Button never really realized about him.

“Whenever there were volatile conditions in a grand prix, either because it was beginning to get wetter or beginning to get drier, or because there was a tyre degradation issue that was across the board, somewhere like Malaysia or Bahrain, Jenson was always the one who was absolutely on it.”

Button podium 2011 Canada

Button savours a win that was almost unthinkable until the very last lap

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In his usual smooth style, Button had also casually broke a few records along the way. Along with it being a grand prix run over the longest duration (four hours including the stops), no other grand driver has been through the pits six times and won or done so at such a low average speed – 74.864kmph (46.518mph) – owing to half the race being run under the safety car.

While Button himself doesn’t believe it to be his greatest win, he does think it was his “greatest comeback”.

Few would disagree.