There are any number of subplots to today’s race in unseasonably chilly Barcelona.
Chief among them, of course, is the question of whether local hero Fernando Alonso can really begin to claw back the deficit on Sebastian Vettel now that the Ferrari F138 seems capable of matching Red Bull for straight-line speed.
But plenty of other issues have been the subject of fevered discussion in the paddock ahead of today’s grand prix at the Circuit de Catalunya. Will Mark Webber, who denied in midweek that he and Vettel have “a great camaraderie”, finally snap and lay one on his unbearably arrogant German team-mate’s chin? Will the prospective loss of technical genius James Allison to Ferrari undermine second-placed Lotus’s early-season charge? Has the unusually long three-week break been enough for struggling teams, such as McLaren, to make sufficient modifications to become competitive? Will the new, harder Pirelli tyres appease teams such as Red Bull and make for fairer races
Yet all of those issues – even the sharp upturn in Alonso’s form – are merely sideshows when compared to the main event. The ripples of bad feeling left behind by the racing duel between McLaren’s Jenson Button and his new gung-ho Mexican team-mate Sergio Perez in Bahrain have dominated the past three weeks, even after both drivers were sat down in a room by team principal Martin Whitmarsh and read the riot act. Both mouthed suitably emollient platitudes in the aftermath of their very public dressing down, yet few observers in the pitlane believe this one has run its course and all eyes will be on the two McLaren drivers this afternoon. For anyone who hasn’t seen the events of Bahrain, the genesis for the post-race spat was a remarkable racing duel that was among the most lively “blue-on-blue” in-team racing served up since Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna swapped rubber and insults in the late 1980s as team-mates at McLaren. That rivalry was at its height in 1988 when Prost’s collision with Senna in Japan gave him his third drivers’ championship, and continued the next year when Senna collided with Prost, who had by then moved to Ferrari, as he took the title.
Button and Perez are nowhere near that state of affairs, but the intensity of their duel was as obvious as it was dangerous. McLaren don’t give team orders and like their drivers to compete with each other. Indeed, Perez was even told by Whitmarsh to “be aggressive” and “to use his elbows”, and also got involved in some brinkmanship with Alonso, as he did with an outraged Kimi Raikkonen in China. The two McLaren drivers raced nose to tail – with Perez at one stage running into the back of Button – and then side by side, with the two drivers bumping tyres at almost 190mph and Button at one stage running Perez off the racing surface.
It was pretty clear that the normally imperturbable Englishman was none too impressed with proceedings, coming on to the radio to twice to ask Whitmarsh and the McLaren engineers to tell Perez to calm down. Nor was he any happier after the race, branding the 23-year-old Mexican as “dirty” in a post-race interview. “There was a lot of clean racing, which was good – apart from with my team-mate,” said Button. “I’ve raced with many team-mates over the years, and I had quite an aggressive team-mate in Lewis [Hamilton], but I’m not used to driving along a straight and having a team-mate coming alongside me and wiggling his wheels at me, and banging wheels at 300 kilometres an hour.
“That isn’t normally the way I go racing. It’s a new thing to me. Maybe it’s the way we go racing now, but it’s not the way I want to. He touched me from behind and he touched me on the side going in a straight line at 300 kilometres an hour. That’s dangerous. I don’t really enjoy that. I’ve had some tough fights in F1, but not quite as dirty as that. Something serious will happen soon, so he has to calm down.”
Team principal Whitmarsh had insisted he “was happy with the way Checo [Perez] raced – it was competitive, which is healthy for the team” before conceding that the Mexican “overstepped the mark”. But such was the animus between the two drivers that he ordered the pair to sit down and thrash the whole affair out.
However, to judge from Perez’s subsequent comments, the Mexican was hardly contrite. “It was very aggressive with all of them, but I fought them as much as they fought with me,” he said. “I agree we [he and Button] were too aggressive, but then he was as aggressive as I was as I went off the track a few times. It was a bit too risky what Jenson and I did: we touched a few times, but when you are there you have adrenaline, so you are fighting and you want to take the position. Hopefully for the next races we can help each other a bit more.”
If ever there was a recipe for a repeat, it is there, which is why racing fans are taking such a keen interest. Whitmarsh continues to insist that he wants his two drivers competing against each other, Button happily admits that he remains “angry” about Bahrain, and Perez refuses to believe he was at fault for pushing his team-mate so hard.
Meanwhile, the context for the whole episode remains McLaren’s unprecedentedly dismal form, with Button lying in tenth place on 13 points while Perez is 11th on ten points. The bookies clearly have Button as the better of the two drivers (his odds to beat Perez in Barcelona are 1/7, while Perez’s odds to beat Button are a prohibitive 4/1), yet the Mexican doesn’t appear to be fazed by his status as underdog. Indeed, he said he sees it as a strength because it means he has nothing to lose. “Except his life,” Jenson Button may well say if he was asked.