• McLaren driver rails against unpredictable season
• Results have slipped since opening win in Australia
Jenson Button fears that Formula One fans will soon tire of a season that is as unpredictable as the roulette at Monaco’s trackside casino. With five winners in five races, including Pastor Maldonado, who was a 500-1 outsider days before he won the last race in Barcelona, some insiders have been congratulating themselves for spicing up the sport.
But a number of drivers have been critical of a season when getting on the podium seems to be as arbitrary as throwing the drivers’ numbers into the air before seeing which lands on top, and Button, on the eve of the grand prix around the streets of his home town, has joined the debate.
“The fans love the fact it is exciting but I think it will get to a point where they will wonder who they are supporting and why someone is winning and someone is losing. How can everyone be a loser and everyone be a winner? Hopefully it will get to a point where we all understand what is going on.”
Last year the introduction of Pirelli’s highly degradable tyres was the biggest factor in F1 becoming a more attractive spectacle, way ahead of the energy-storing KERS and the overtaking aid, DRS. The teams and their drivers eventually came to terms with their tyres last season but that has not been the case this year, with the new generation of generally softer rubber, with temperatures difficult to control.
Button, whose results have fallen away since winning the opening race in Australia two months ago, believes this failure is the main reason behind the unpredictability of the racing. “No one in the pit lane understands the tyres,” he says. “There are geniuses, supposedly, in the sport but none of us understands how Pastor qualifies in 13th and 21st position and then qualifies for the front row in the next one.
“Why is it so up and down? Last year we talked a lot about tyres but not like this year. Last year we understood the tyres and understood what we had to do to make them work through a race. But this year we still don’t know. It does worry me a little bit. I haven’t been able to look after the tyres, so it has been very weird.
“When you engineer the car and you change something it should do something in that direction but it doesn’t. So you try the opposite and sometimes it works. It is very strange and it is all because you cannot get the tyres in the right working range. When you do it’s amazing and the car works great.”
The situation is particularly perturbing for Button because there is a precision and elegance about his driving style and he is considered to be one of the most skilful conservers of rubber. He believes the problem will be overcome – “we have got such clever people here that it must happen” – but he is also concerned that McLaren’s competitors might find the key first. “There is that worry. We have just got to keep trying to find it. Everyone is in the same position so we have got to hope that we are cleverer than the rest.”
Button, who surprised many when he outperformed his McLaren team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, last year, has struggled since his opening victory in Melbourne, finishing 14th in Malaysia, second in China, retired in Bahrain and ninth in Spain. “Melbourne was the perfect weekend. The next weekend was again looking very good but I made a mistake. And then in China again we had a very good chance of victory but someone else [the man on the rear left wheel] made a mistake.
“The last two races have been unusually poor. Qualifying wasn’t bad in Bahrain but the race pace wasn’t good. And in the last race qualifying was terrible and also the race pace wasn’t good.
“It’s quite unusual for me, with McLaren, to have bad pace in the race, to not be consistent. We have changed a few things on the car for here.”
The novelist Somerset Maugham described Monaco as a sunny place for shady people but on Friday, as the rain tumbled, it was a shady place for sunny people. Even the unusually bad weather could not dampen Button’s enthusiasm for the place; he has returned to live here after a spell in Guernsey.
“I moved back in February back because I can train every day outdoors. Last week I was out five days on the bike. I cycle all the time with Paul di Resta and David Coulthard. And I go with some pro cyclists. It makes a massive difference to me because otherwise I get fed up.”
Button, who was fastest in Thursday’s practice ahead of qualifying on Saturday, also has fond memories of the street circuit where he won in his world championship season of 2009. “It’s pretty crazy driving a Formula One car here, a 750 horsepower monster that we tame round the streets of Monaco.
“We all know it’s difficult to overtake but there have been some amazing overtaking manoeuvres. We also know how difficult it is to race here. It feels that the circuit is getting narrower and narrower every lap you do.
“You get mentally drained. But when you win here it means so much. It’s a massive celebration, whoever wins. The horns are blowing, the boats go crazy, the grandstands and people on the balconies join in with one big celebration of Formula One.”
Murray Walker once memorably said: “There are seven winners of the Monaco Grand Prix on the starting line today and four of them are Michael Schumacher.” On Sunday there will be six former winners on the grid. But there are more than a dozen who could easily finish on top of the podium.