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Button: Monaco return feels ‘slightly surreal’

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Jenson Button hasn’t yet sat or tested the McLaren Honda he’ll be racing this weekend. But when you’re a past Formula 1 World Champion and Monaco Grand Prix winner (Sunday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBC), as Button is, you should be able to adapt pretty quickly.

Button, who won both titles during the 2009 season, will make his first and thus far only planned start of 2017 this weekend as stand-in for Fernando Alonso, who’s hogged the headlines and embraced the challenge of his maiden run in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

With Monaco offering a good chance to score points for McLaren – it’s not power-dependent – Button is keeping expectations low up front as he prepares for his comeback.

“It feels slightly surreal to be back in the cockpit for the Monaco Grand Prix. When the call came from Eric there was no hesitation – it’s a totally unique situation and a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to stepping back behind the wheel for one of the most crazy, unpredictable and exciting races of the year,” he said in the team’s advance release.

“Monaco is truly unique as a track, and requires a lot of work to fine-tune the car and optimize the set-up for the narrow layout. It’s always a challenge – a huge challenge, for any driver – but a really exciting challenge, and has always been up there in my favorite races of the year.”

Button said he’s focused and prepared for the drive, for what will be his 306th career Grand Prix start – one which would draw him level with Michael Schumacher for second on Formula 1’s all-time start list. Button’s old teammate, Rubens Barrichello, holds that mark with 322 starts in 326 Grand Prix weekends.

“Although I haven’t turned a wheel on track yet in the MCL32, I feel well prepared,” he said.

“I know the track well, of course, and I’ve done quite a bit of work in the McLaren simulator already. I’m still fit, and I’ve been training probably more than ever, because I’ve had the time to focus on my triathlon preparation and competitions.

“I’m looking forward to working with the team again, and, as I’ll be on the other side of the garage this time around, I’ll do my best to look after the car for Fernando!”

McLaren Honda racing director Eric Boullier, who has been in Indianapolis with Alonso this week, said Button is up to the task.

“In the famous Monaco paddock, we welcome the return of Jenson, who we are all looking forward to working with again, and who is already doing a sterling job deputizing for Fernando, having already completed stints in our simulator in preparation,” he said.

Button’s story has, of course, generated some discussion. Mark Webber didn’t rate it a particularly big deal while Romain Grosjean said he does not expect Button to struggle.

Coverage for the Monaco Grand Prix begins on Thursday with free practice one coverage online at 4 a.m. ET, then free practice two live on NBCSN at 8 a.m. ET.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.