SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) — For a brief moment, it appeared Jenson Button would challenge for a podium spot at the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday and end McLaren's poor start to the season.
But those hopes unraveled in the pits.
Leading the Malaysian Grand Prix after 33 laps, Button pitted and figured he would come out with a good chance of challenging the Mercedes cars of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg for a podium spot. But his team failed to attach one of his wheels properly and the car stopped as he was pulling out. When the Brit eventually came out, he was 14th and never recovered before retiring with two laps remaining.
It was a slightly better showing for teammate Sergio Perez, who finished ninth to give the team just four points after two races.
Button tried to put a positive spin on the race, insisting it was a step forward after an early season when the team struggled to get a handle on its new car, which until now has performed well below expectations. Both drivers have described a range of problems — from pace to balance to aerodynamics. Perez even suggested that going back to last year's car might be an option — something the team has yet to embrace.
"Apart from the hiccup in the pit stop, I think great job this weekend from where we were in Melbourne," Button said. "I don't think many people know our true pace and where we would finish. I think we would have fought with the Mercedes with one less pit stop. We could have fought for a podium. It's not so bad but it's a lot of points to throw away when they aren't easy to come by."
Perez also appeared to be challenging for a spot in the top five but his tires undid him.
"This afternoon my engineers sorted out a very good race strategy that enabled me to pass the cars immediately in front of me early on - so thank you and well done for that, guys," he said. "Unfortunately, toward the end of the race, my tires began to degrade a bit too much, especially my front left, and we therefore felt it would be too risky to try to drive to the finish on that set. Consequently, we had no real option other than to make an extra pit stop, which caused me to lose position."
Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh, who critics have blamed for the new car's troubles, said they may be starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.
"After having finished only ninth and 11th last weekend in Melbourne, today in Sepang we saw clear evidence that all the hard work we've been doing over the past week has resulted in some significant gains in terms of car development," he said. "Although as I say we're very disappointed for Jenson, the truth is that he could and should have finished at least fifth - and, although by our own high standards that's not remotely good enough, it plainly shows that we're going in the right direction from a car-development point of view."