Formula One: McLaren not a spent force

Formula One: McLaren not a spent force
McLaren driver Jenson Button attended the the Esso Synergy Race Off Finale at the Conrad Centennial hotel yesterday. The 2009 world champion said: “Maybe as soon as next year, McLaren will be up there again.”
PHOTO: The Straits Times

A day before he arrived in Singapore yesterday, Jenson Button's wife, model Jessica Michibata, posted on Instagram a holiday snap of the couple in Phuket.

The photograph suggested wedded bliss, a laid-back and carefree vacation - and a world removed from the hustle and bustle of Formula One.

But Button - who remains one of the most approachable drivers on the grid even in his 16th year in F1 - insists that he remains hungry, determined and steadfast even in a season that has turned sour for his McLaren team, who have struggled since marrying Honda power units to their chassis.

Speaking to The Straits Times, the genial Briton underlined his resolve to add to the six points collected this year in finishing ninth in Hungary and eighth in Monaco.

"We need to aim for points," the 35-year-old said."There are three teams who are too far ahead, but for the rest, there is all to play for. We want to aim high, to finish seventh.

"It has been very tough for the whole team. We were so used to winning, fighting for wins. Suddenly, we are at the back and it has been very difficult.

"The atmosphere (in the team) is good although it is difficult to see that on the circuit. What's important is that we see progress being made."

Button was in good spirits as he bantered with youngsters taking part in a simulator challenge at the Esso Synergy Race Off Finale at the Conrad Centennial hotel. The event was organised by McLaren's technology partner and race fuel lubricant sponsor ExxonMobil.

Button feels that his McLaren MP4-30 race car is suited to the twisting corners and slower speed of the Singapore circuit.

He said: "This is a very low-speed track, so we need as much downforce as we can (get). But we will still need power as there are lots of straights.

"We've had problems with the deployment of the electricals (ERS), that's 160 horsepower. If we can get it fixed, that will be a good boost."

Button has a good track record at the Marina Bay Street Circuit. Apart from the inaugural race in 2008, when he placed ninth, he has always scored points in Singapore, with a pair of second-place finishes in 2011 and 2012 as his best performances.

Even as he tries to rescue his campaign, Button sounded a warning that McLaren - with 182 race wins, 12 drivers' championships and eight constructors' titles - are not a spent force yet.

Although the garage boasts two former world champions in Button and Fernando Alonso, the duo have picked up just 17 points this year as McLaren languish ninth out of 10 teams in the standings.

Accusing fingers have wagged in Honda's direction but Button parried the accusations and believes McLaren will be challengers as early as next year.

He said: "The team have been working hard on the new car in Woking and in Japan since April. The basic concept is there, so is the carbon-fibre monocoque. And the drivers have been constantly helping to develop the car based on our experiences this season.

"You never know. Turnarounds can happen quite fast in Formula One. Maybe as soon as next year, McLaren will be up there again."

Button also stressed that by no means is his F1 career over at the end of his two-year McLaren contract this year, even though there was speculation last year that he was to be dropped this season.

"I've had a couple of very good chats with (McLaren Group CEO) Ron (Dennis)," he said.

"I've thought about lots (on switching to rallying or touring cars). There's still a lot to go through. Nothing is set in stone."

And, laid-back and blissful that his photo with his wife in Phuket might seem, he was there in fact for some endurance training.

An avid triathlete, he spent three days squeezing in daily 51/2-hour sessions that totalled three runs, five swims, almost 300km in three bicycle rides, plus core training in the gym.

"That was good training," he enthused. "My fitness is way beyond what is required in Formula One but Singapore is a very special race. It is very physical, it is very bumpy and there is no rest."

Bumpy circuit or rocky season, it is just another obstacle for this veteran racer to calmly overcome.

This article was first published on Sept 17, 2015.
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