• ‘We need Ferrari to be competitive,’ says McLaren driver
• Button calls for help to combat Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel
Jenson Button, whose old playboy image was once seen as symbolic of Formula One’s epicurean mores, wants another party – but this time he wants it on the track.
“We need more than just Lewis Hamilton and myself to fight Sebastian Vettel,” he said. Button and Hamilton, with one victory apiece, are the only drivers to question Vettel’s hegemony in the first seven races of the season.
Now Button is looking to Ferrari, and Fernando Alonso in particular, to break the dominance of Vettel, who increased his lead in Canada two weeks ago despite being beaten, thrillingly, by the 2009 British champion.
“We need Ferrari in there,” Button said. “If they are quicker than us they will take points off us, so it is tricky both ways. But I think we would rather take the risk and have them competitive and hope we can do a better job than both of them. Seb is still the man to beat, but Fernando’s car worked well in Canada.
“They had a very efficient DRS [drag reduction system], a very good qualifying mode which they won’t have here. Fernando has had a couple of races where he feels he could have done better. And at one of his home grands prix he will be motivated.”
Motivating the local hero Alonso, the world champion in 2005 and 2006 and the highest-paid driver in the sport on an estimated salary of £30m, is not a problem, even though he languishes 92 points behind Vettel. At least he finished top of Friday’s second practice session to give some hope for Sunday.
But Alonso has not won since his victory in South Korea eight months ago. His triumph in the treacherous conditions at the Yeongam track was his third in four races. But now, to the despair of its adoring tifosi, the prancing horse is going through yet another malaise and is 154 points behind Red Bull in the constructors’ championship.
So many of the big names associated with the team’s dominance at the start of the century have long gone – Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn, Jean Todt, Rory Byrne. Now, after this season’s early failures, they have been joined by the technical director, Aldo Costa.
There is an altogether more Italian look about Ferrari these days, although it is an Englishman, Pat Fry, who has been brought in, in an effort to solve their many concerns, which include trouble with their wind-tunnel testing as well as restrictions on their previously unlimited practice facilities at Fiorano and Mugello.
But on Sunday, at the European Grand Prix, Italy and Spain are united in a desire to see Ferrari and Alonso on top of the podium once more.
The Spanish Grand Prix was run in Barcelona a month ago. A second Spanish grand prix, the European Grand Prix, came to Valencia for the first time in 2008, purely because of Alonso’s popularity.
“When I was a kid, Formula One was not important at all,” he said. “It was not a sport we followed. I never saw a race on TV in my life until I was 17 or 18.
“When I was racing in go-karts I never saw a Formula One race. There was some news at the end of the year about who was world champion and who was not world champion but we didn’t know any of the names.
“Now it’s quite popular in Spain. People love this sport. It’s not easy. It’s quite complex. But they love it as we love motorbikes here. Now there are many drivers. I’m happy because it’s my sport and something that I love and now I’m happy that the country shares this love.”
But Valencia has not loved Alonso in the three rather disappointing European GPs. He had a first-lap accident in the first race three years ago and was eighth last season when he got tangled up with the safety car and lost more places after going into the pits. Sixth in 2009 is his best result.
He said: “I raced for a Valencian team in Formula Nissan or F3000 so I have quite a close relationship with this town. It has always been a nice feeling here in this city.
“This is a circuit where the attendance is not great in past years and there has been a lot of effort from everybody to get maximum fans this weekend so we need to put on a good show for them and hopefully they will enjoy the race.”
But the attendance on Friday was poor, even though it was a public holiday, and Valencia’s future as an F1 host is in serious doubt. It is not only Alonso and Ferrari who will be tested on Sunday. The same applies to the crowd.