Watching Button's unlikely Canada GP win with Ron Dennis: 'We could hardly speak'


Jenson Button defied the odds in 2011 by winning the longest race in F1 history with a dramatic last-lap overtake. Matt Bishop arguably had the best seat in the house, as he watched the race's final moments with McLaren's speechless team boss

Button Canada 2011

Button claims unlikely win at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix

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Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix was an entertaining wet-then-dry race, but you will surely not think me churlish for stating that, as a gripping spectacle, it did not compare to the four-hours-and-four-minutes wet-then-dry extravaganza that unfolded in the same place 13 years before. Almost no other Formula 1 grand prix ever has, before or since.

It rained heavily in Montreal on the morning of Sunday June 12, 2011, and every car was duly fitted with full-wet tyres even though it had been decided that the race would start behind the safety car. That was the correct decision because standing water lay deep all around the track. Even so, the safety car pulled into the pitlane after just five laps — which probably would not happen on such a deluged circuit nowadays — after which the drivers were permitted to race, and therefore to overtake, to run wide, to spin off, and to shunt into one another.

I was McLaren’s communications director at the time, and our drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button had qualified reasonably well: fifth (Hamilton) and seventh (Button). They had been running third (Hamilton) and fifth (Button) during those initial five laps behind the safety car, but they got themselves into trouble soon afterwards. First Hamilton and Mark Webber (Red Bull) tangled, which mishap dropped them to seventh and 14th respectively, then Button ran wide over a big puddle and allowed Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) and Hamilton to pass him. Hamilton then tried to pass Schumacher, made a mess of it, and dropped behind Button.

Irritated with himself, and keen to make amends, Lewis tried to overtake his team-mate on the start-finish straight. Disaster! They made contact, and Hamilton came off worse, his car thudding into the pitwall and retirement. Button drove into the pits for intermediates, and our mechanics gave his car a superfast look-over while the wheel changes were taking place. The race was only eight laps old, we had just one car left in it — Button’s — and we were concerned that it might have sustained accident damage. It had not, as it turned out.

Lewis Hamilton Jenson Button 2011 Canadian Grand Prix

Hamilton’s McLaren suffers race-ending damage while Button scampers away ahead

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More bad news came our way soon, though: a drive-through penalty for Button for speeding behind the safety car, dropping him to 15th. But he was enjoying the feel of his car on inters, and he moved confidently back up to eighth by lap 18. However, all his hard work then came to naught when the heavens opened again, this time more forcefully than ever. He pitted for full-wets on lap 19, and the safety car was deployed again on lap 20. Six laps later the rain had become so biblical that the race was red-flagged for safety reasons. The downpour would not relent for another two hours, during which the drivers kicked their heels in the garages and paddock hospitality areas — and were required to do live TV interviews.

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Our priority was of course Button, because Hamilton was out of the race. Nonetheless, I wanted to do whatever I could to give us as good a chance of avoiding unnecessarily negative media coverage as a result of our drivers’ lap-seven civil war, so I took an executive decision to speak to them both individually before allowing them to do any live TV interviews. On balance I had thought that their coming-together had been a racing incident: Lewis had been faster and had been trying to pass, but he had not managed to draw level with Jenson by the time the two had made contact; on the other hand, Jenson had jinked ever so slightly to his left, towards Lewis, at the critical moment, and it was that ever so slight jink that had precipitated their contact.

So I described the shunt as I had adjudged it to both of them, separately, my intention being to persuade each of them to agree that, all things considered, neither should blame his team-mate. Once I had secured their consensus on that point, which thankfully I did, I revisited each of them individually, telling Lewis that he should not pin the blame on Jenson because Jenson would not pin the blame on him, and telling Jenson that he should not pin the blame on Lewis because Lewis would not pin the blame on him. They both visibly relaxed. In my long experience of dealing with highly strung F1 drivers, I have always found that identifying on-the-hoof ways of lowering their stress levels is a sure-fire route to reducing the likelihood that they will make mistakes. I have rarely had the opportunity to put that theory into practice halfway through a race though, but the unusually lengthy hiatus in the middle of the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix made it a special case.

Jenson Button Lewis Hamilton 2011 Canadian Grand Prix

A war of words avoided

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I was standing next to Jenson while he was doing all his live TV interviews, and, as so often, he was word-perfect in all of them. I had only a normal umbrella with me, for I had been unable to find one of our wide two-person jobbies because they had all been nabbed by sponsor VIPs, so I held my modest brolly above Jenson while the rain cascaded down on me, unimpeded. I do not think I have ever been so drenched. I was completely wet — all the way through every layer of clothing — right down to socks and underpants. But needs must. When Jenson had finished being interviewed, he darted across the paddock through the rain to our hospitality unit and ordered a plate of pasta, which he ate while we waited for news from the FIA as to when the race might resume.

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So it was that when that time finally came, at nearly 4pm, Jenson was dry, yes, but also composed, and in a good way. It was still raining, albeit less hard than it had been earlier, so the safety car was deployed for the resumption. Button was running in 10th place. After seven laps the safety car was driven into the pitlane, and racing recommenced. Jenson stopped for inters — and, as he exited the pitlane, he rejoined the racetrack immediately behind Fernando Alonso (Ferrari). He harried him for a corner or two, he tried to pass him at Turn 3, the two cars touched, and the Ferrari was left beached on a kerb, ending Alonso’s run. Button’s McLaren continued, albeit hobbled by a left-front puncture. He drove it slowly around the circuit, he pulled it into the pits, and our mechanics fitted new rubber. Back out he went, now in 21st place, stone last, with 33 of the scheduled 70 laps to go.

I had been watching from our garage between the resumption and Jenson’s latest on-track contretemps, but, now that I thought a points-scoring finish was highly unlikely, I strolled disconsolately across the paddock into our hospitality area and made myself a cup of tea. I watched the TV monitors for a while, then I thought I had better give Ron Dennis, our chairman, a briefing as to how our drivers’ live TV interviews had gone. I put my head around his office door and found him there, glued to his TV monitors and data screens, all alone. “You’re soaked,” he said. “You can watch the rest of the race here with me if you like.” I did as bidden.

Jenson Button 2011 Canadian grand Prix

Button begins his charge

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The rain gradually stopped and a thin dry line slowly began to emerge. But off-line the track surface was still perilously slippery. Such conditions were made for one man and one man alone: Jenson Button. Always a master of gradually changing track surface characteristics and ever evolving tyre wear, he began to fly. After just seven laps he had moved from 21st to 14th. Two laps later he was 10th. He timed his switch to slicks better than anyone else, and as the race entered its final third he was up to fourth. Ahead were Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), the long-time race leader, Schumacher and Webber. Ron looked at me and whispered, “We can win this.”

If you are lucky, just a few times in your life you may be blessed with the feeling that, of the eight billion people who inhabit our planet, you are the one in the absolute right place at the absolute right time. But whoever and wherever they were, either staff in our Woking factory or fans glued to their televisions at home, everyone who was now beginning to hope against hope for the most astonishing McLaren victory in the team’s long and glorious history was feeling that rare but unmistakeable tingling sensation that is the prelude to any truly seismic sporting turnaround, especially one wherein you have skin in the game. And I was not only in the absolute right place, at the absolute right time, with skin in the game, but also sitting alongside one of the greatest legends in F1 history, who had more skin in the game than anyone.

On lap 56 — with 14 to go — Nick Heidfeld (Renault) and Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) made contact, ending the former’s race. Out came yet another safety car while bits of broken Renault and Sauber were cleaned away, which meant that the field was now closed up and we were going to see a flat-out sprint for the win. With five laps to go, Button passed Webber for third. Very soon afterwards, he forced his way past Schumacher. He was now second with three laps to go.

Jenson Button Sebastian Vettel 2011 Canadian Grand Prix

Button in pursuit of an unlikely win

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Neither Ron nor I could speak. On lap 69 — the penultimate tour — Jenson drove the race’s fastest lap, a scintillating white-knuckle 1min 16.956sec effort, which meant that the two leading cars were separated by just a single second as they embarked on the final lap. And then it happened. Vettel ran wide at Turn 6, Button swooped by, and one of the grandest F1 team principals of them all leapt to his feet, punched the air powerfully with both fists, and let out the kind of primordial, wordless, shapeless, bellowing sound that triumphant men have surely been making since neanderthals first celebrated the successful hunting of woolly mammoths more than 100,000 years ago. Somehow, it was not only magnificent but also exactly right. It is a moment that I will never forget.