Classic motorsport moment: Button’s epic Canada comeback | Top Gear
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Classic motorsport moment: Button’s epic Canada comeback

The greatest F1 race ever? Ten years on, relive the mayhem of the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix

Published: 08 Jun 2021
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This weekend coming was meant to feature the Canadian Grand Prix, but for the second year in a row the race in Montreal has been called off because of Covid-19. Boo.

The cancellation would be a great shame in any circumstance, but especially so this year as the race was set to take place on the 10th anniversary of what was - depending on who you ask - the most thrilling grand prix of them all.

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Cast your mind back to 2011. We’ve only just seen the fifth Fast & Furious movie, Example has topped the UK charts with Changed The Way You Kiss Me, and in F1 a team that isn’t Mercedes is doing all of the winning.

Heading into the weekend, reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel is comfortably leading the drivers’ championship having won five for the first six races. True to form he qualifies on pole at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, pipping the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.

Meanwhile, McLaren’s Jenson Button starts back in seventh. The British driver has managed a trio of podiums in the early stages of the season, but looks unlikely to add another to that tally from the fourth row of the grid.

He must’ve done the mother of all rain dances overnight, because race day comes and the heavens open. And not just your standard, run-of-the-mill downpour, the kind of biblical rain that - had he been given prior warning - would’ve prompted Noah to build another ark.

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Conditions are so bad that the race begins behind the safety car. On lap five the field is finally released, and Button leaps straight up to fifth as teammate Lewis Hamilton tangles with Red Bull’s Mark Webber.

Two laps later, disaster. Button makes a mistake on the final corner which gives Hamilton the run on him down the pit straight. But with so much spray coming off the car, Button doesn’t see his teammate in his mirrors and the pair collide. Hamilton picks up suspension damage and is forced out; Button limps back to the pits with a puncture for a new front wing.

Then things get worse. The only McLaren left standing is caught speeding under yellow flags and is punished with a drive-through penalty. Taking it after another safety car period drops Button to 15th.

On intermediate tyres the Brit begins to make up places, but by lap 19 Button is back in the pits for a third time for full wets. Conditions worsen and the race is red flagged, leaving him down in 10th.

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After a delay of more than two hours, the race resumes with 45 of the scheduled 70 laps still to go. Button pits for a fourth time to switch back to inters, but almost immediately he’s in trouble again after colliding with Alonso at the first chicane. The Ferrari is left beached on the kerb, while the McLaren hobbles back to the garage with yet more front wing damage and another puncture.

At just over half distance, Button has pitted five times and is in last place, having punted two fellow world champions out of the grand prix. It isn’t going well.

But with 30 laps remaining and having finally weathered the storm, Button finds his rhythm. The master of changing conditions begins to work his way up through the pack, and with 20 laps left he’s up to 10th. A drying line begins to emerge on the track and he gambles on slicks at pit stop number six.

McLaren times the stop to perfection, and Button sets the timing screens alight with the fastest laps of the grand prix so far. His pace sparks another shake-up as other drivers follow suit, and as the safety car makes its sixth appearance to aid the clean-up of bits of Nick Heidfeld’s crashed Renault, Button is a staggering fourth.

If the race had stopped there and then, Button and his team would’ve been delighted with the result. But there was more to come. Webber - now in third and pushing to get past a resurgent Michael Schumacher - misses the final chicane, leaving the door wide open for Button to sweep past and into the podium places. A lap later and he scythes past Schumacher too. Five laps left to chase down Vettel.

Amid all the chaos behind, the German has led every single lap so far. Button reels him in, taking chunk after chunk out of the gap between him and his rival, but as they cross the line for the final time it looks like the 2009 champ will fall agonisingly short.

And then with half a lap to go, Vettel makes his first mistake of the day. Straying just inches off the dry line, the Red Bull driver gets a tank-slapper and slides wide, gifting an unbelievable victory to Button only a handful of corners from the finish. Cue pandemonium in the McLaren garage.

Button took the chequered flag four hours, four minutes and 39 seconds after the race had started, making it the longest grand prix in the history of F1. In that time he’d averaged a pedestrian 46.51mph, albeit having been stationary for more than two hours under the red flag. His six pit stops were the most of any winning driver, before or since. No wonder he called it his “greatest race”.

Was it the greatest ever F1 race? With so much of it spent behind the safety car and with only one lead change, you could reasonably argue that it wasn’t. But in terms of drama, it’s right up there. Hope to see you in 2022, Canada.

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