Formula 1: Canada pushes the right buttons for Jenson and McLaren

DOWN the years, there have been some epic Formula One comebacks. Duns legend Jim Clark’s controlled rage at the 1967 Italian Grand Prix, when he made up a whole lap in the second half of the race after a puncture, only to be denied on the last lap because of a faulty fuel pump, remains one of F1’s greatest drives. So, too, at the Nurburgring in 1957 when Juan Manuel Fangio claimed his fifth world title with a truly awe-inspiring come-from-behind win over Brits Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. Or the 1993 British GP when Ayrton Senna started from fifth and won the race by over a minute in what Michael Schumacher described as the Drive of the Decade.

Yet for virtuosity, chutzpah and sheer guts, none of those wins can eclipse Jenson Button’s bravura victory in the driving rain in Canada last year. Montreal was a freakish race of records. The longest ever at over four hours thanks to a two-hour rain delay and the race in which a series of collisions saw the safety car deployed six times, more than in any other race. But, mostly, it was a race about Button, about a remarkable comeback that saw him come from last to first to overtake race leader Sebastien Vettel on the final lap.

The German world champion already had five wins and a second-place from six races by the time the lights went green at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and was already well on his way to making it back-to-back titles. Yet he could do nothing to hold Button back as the Englishman changed to slicks and completed the greatest Formula One comeback of all time, squeezing past Vettel with one final, audacious pass as the chequered flag beckoned. It was the last of an unprecedented 19 overtaking manoeuvres by the McLaren driver during a race of almost relentless drama which witnessed a record 34 passes.

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It was that sort of crazy race. Button collided with both Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso and endured a drive-through penalty and six visits to the pits, yet he displayed a remarkable tenacity to secure what he happily admits is the best of his 13 F1 wins.

When the lights go green again this afternoon, Button will be desperate to rekindle the spirit of Montreal 2011 on his 12th visit to the fastest circuit of the season, where he also finished second (2010) and third (2004). After winning the first race of the season in Australia, it’s been downhill all the way for the likeable Button.

A second place in China and ninth in Spain have brought him another 20 points, but disastrous 14th, 18th and 16th-place finishes in Malaysia, Bahrain and Monaco represent an unexpectedly poor start to his season.

As well as retiring from two races, his qualifying form has fallen off a cliff, with Button starting from tenth and 12th on the grid in the last two races. Most dispiriting of all, with 45 points he has fallen 18 points – a country mile in F1 – behind his unsettled team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who has 63. McLaren’s race pace has been a problem in the past three GPs but, in contrast to Button, Hamilton has been fast in qualifying and has eked out points in every race.

Part of the problem has been the most competitive championship in years, with Williams’ Pastor Maldonado topping the podium in Spain, Sauber’s Sergio Perez second in Malaysia and Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen second in China. Parity, though, hasn’t been kind to Button. “It’s a very competitive season,” says Button. “If you make a mistake or something goes wrong, you can be outside the points or scoring small points. In previous years it would be a shock to be scoring two or three points when you’re driving for McLaren, but this season is very different, it’s massively competitive.

“It just hasn’t gone my or the team’s way over the last few races but that will turn round, and we will be back scoring good points.”

Button is not the only one to struggle compared to his team-mate. Across at Ferrari, former favourite Felipe Massa copped flak from no less a person than team boss Luca di Montezuma for his abject form, which saw him score only ten points from the first six races compared to team-mate Fernando Alonso’s 76, and this week he was told he won’t be getting a new contract. At Mercedes, Michael Schumacher has registered an embarrassing two points compared to Nico Rosberg’s 59. In the Force India team, Bathgate’s Paul Di Resta has three times as many points as Niko Hulkenburg.

In a sport where no one knows what technical advantage the other teams have, the only real guide to form is how team-mates stack up against each other – and Button is suffering badly by comparison. Nor does his luck appear to be turning just yet. On Friday, while Hamilton was fastest in practice, Button was tenth after an oil leak.

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Yet he has proved down the years that he can handle the pressure and keep driving with his trademark smooth style. Montreal, with a layout which favours his relaxed driving style, is the perfect place to kickstart a comeback. Button will also be hoping for rain tomorrow. Arguably his two greatest triumphs – last year in Canada and at the 2006 Hungarian GP after starting 14th on the grid – were in the rain.

For the 2008 world champion, it’s time for the drought to end, in every sense.