SHANGHAI // Last year's world title failed to impress everyone, but perhaps, finally, they are starting to believe. Jenson Button secured his second victory of the Formula One campaign in the Chinese Grand Prix yesterday, beating teammate Lewis Hamilton after McLaren-Mercedes allowed the pair to race unfettered on a rainy afternoon. The critical call came as early as lap two, when it began to drizzle significantly. Dry tyres or intermediates? That was the question - and Button called correctly, staying out on the track and earning a positional advantage he would retain until the end.
Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull-Renault) made a sluggish start from the pole position and was beaten to turn one by teammate Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso, who vaulted from third on the grid to grab the initial advantage. "I thought 'Mama mia, what a start'," said Stefano Domenicali, the Ferrari team principal. "But then I realised it had been a bit too good." The stewards concurred and handed the Spaniard a drive-through penalty.
The race was neutralised behind the safety car on the opening lap, after Tonio Liuzzi spun at Turn Six and knocked rivals Kamui Kobayashi and Sebastien Buemi off the track. Alonso, both Red Bull drivers and Lewis Hamilton opted to come in for wet tyres on lap two, but Button - now running second behind Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) - chose to stay out. "The team gave me the option of pitting," Button said, "but staying on the dry tyres was the right thing to do. It didn't always feel like it, though, because grip levels were changing by the lap." It did, though, spare him two pit stops.
Button took the lead on lap 19, when Rosberg ran wide just as it began to rain again. Both switched to intermediate Bridgestones soon afterwards - and then the safety car appeared again, to allow marshals to sweep the track after Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Roso-Ferrari) lost his front wing. That bunched up the field and allowed Hamilton to recover ground lost earlier. He made good use of the opportunity, slicing past Robert Kubica (Renault) before moving up to challenge Rosberg for second place. Hamilton briefly passed the German on lap 35, but could not make the move stick. They swapped positions in the pits, however, when almost the whole field came in soon afterwards for fresh intermediates.
The 2008 champion was then free to chase his teammate, but Button began to edge clear - and on lap 48 Hamilton radioed in to complain about a worn front left tyre. With four laps to go, however, the gap shrank once more after Button ran wide at the hairpin. "I really struggled to put heat into my tyres after that," he said, "and it began raining quite hard again during the final few laps, which made things very tricky."
Button hung on to move into the championship lead for the first time this year. Hamilton escaped serious post-race censure after stewards decided he and Vettel had driven dangerously, side-by-side through the pits, after switching back from wet to dry tyres on lap five. Both parties were reprimanded. Rosberg took third, despite late-race pressure from the recovering Alonso, and Kubica did his customary, error-free job to take fifth for Renault. Both Red Bulls lost time during their first stop, when Webber hit the front jack and caused damage that delayed the incoming Vettel. They finished eighth and sixth respectively, either side of Kubica's teammate Vitaly Petrov - the first Russian to score world championship points.
It was a difficult afternoon for Michael Schumacher, who spent almost as much time being overtaken as Hamilton did overtaking. "I did not manage my tyre strategy very well today," he said. "It was one of those races you do not want to remember, but that has been true of the whole weekend, really." firstname.lastname@example.org