What did Button mean by ‘neutral’ car?

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McLaren’s Jenson Button says he’s ready for the role as the lead driver at the woking-based team now that Lewis Hamilton has departed for the Silver pastures of Mercedes in 2013. Button says the role is not new to him as he took over from where Jacques Villeneuve left off a BAR Honda and promptly took that team to the world championship when it was labeled as Brawn GP. Button bested then teammate Rubens Barrichello for the title to take the championship in 2009.

Button has always been considered an ace driver with great touch and feel for a car and when it rains or the conditions are right for tire conservation, Button has excelled. The 2012 season saw Button struggle with heat, or a lack thereof, in his front tires and we’ve discussed that at length on our podcasts with professional driver and Logistics Manager of Simraceway, Paul Charsley. Button offered what he felt was his key characteristic in being such a good team leader and that is car development. He told AUTOSPORT:

“We all drive differently and have different styles,” he said. “For me I need a car I can develop beneath me and feel comfortable in.

“If the car feels neutral and unbalanced it doesn’t work for me.

“I need to develop a car and engineer a car in a position that feels comfortable for me, and I don’t think anyone can do a better job than I can in that position.

“The problem for me is if I can’t get the car there I do struggle more than some.”

It was a statement that I thought could use a little unpacking for fans new to F1. The thought of a neutral car seemed better than one that might be unbalanced so I have gone straight to Paul Charsley to help us understand what Jenson could have meant with his statement:

“A car is either neutral or unbalanced. It can’t be both in my mind…maybe he’s afraid of saying oversteery?

Basically a car is more controllable with a little bit of understeer on entry (Bob Wollek told me this so it has to be right, and it is) as you can make that adjustment with just a bit of steering or throttle adjustment. If a car is nervous on entry you have to use more of the cars controls to tame it and at the same time you must catch the slide with the steering while manipulating throttle and/or brake. Some drivers are better or more comfortable with this technique.  A neutral car on exit is ideal as that  enables you to stay on power and just adjust with the steering but doesn’t halt momentum.

For Jenson, who does like the comfort( maybe the wrong word as he is by no means trudging around there) of a little understeer, he can develop the car to this behavior but have it on the cusp of neutral so the car can react quickly to what he needs in the corner, If you have a Co-No.1 (Lewis) who has a completely different style, the setup may have to be a bit more compromised and less ideal.”

I hope that helps in unpacking Jenson’s statement as to what he likes in a car. I’ve often likened Jenson’s style to that of Alain Prost and as a Prost fan, I know that Jenson needs to car to be working in order for him to win races and titles. There is nothing wrong with that, Prost won four of them using the same method of letting the car do the work. Then again, Fernando Alonso won two of the them by letting the car know who’s boss.  Just two different approaches in my mind.

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