F1 » Jenson Button
Jenson Button, perhaps more than anyone, embodies the need for a little luck to accompany talent in any F1 driver's career. Having bounced around between Williams, Benetton, Renault, BAR and Honda without ever really being at any at quite the right time, his time in the top flight appeared to be over when Honda pulled the plug on its involvement at the end of 2008. It was somewhat ironic, therefore, that remaining loyal to the Brawn GP team that rose from the Japanese ashes would finally put Button in exactly
the right place at the right time.
Nobody would have been as surprised by the announcement of his signing by Williams than Button himself. Plucked from British Formula Three series to face heroes like Michael Schumacher in the 2000 world championship was something the youngster admitted had been but a dream until it actually happened.
So short was Button's car racing history that he was still racing karts as recently as 1997. His junior career began at the tender age of eight, as Britain introduced the Cadet class, and the young Button quickly established himself as the man to beat with a win first time out. Victory in the 1989 British Cadet Kart Superprix merely confirmed his promise.
Further success followed, with consecutive British Cadet championships in 1990 and 1991 - the latter on the back of a clean sweep of race wins. First place in the concurrent British Open championship then served as a stepping stone as Jenson graduated to the Junior TKM ranks.
Both the National and Open titles fell to the boy from Frome, Somerset in 1992, with the latter being retained in '93, paving the way to a concerted assault on the European series the following year. Two wins overseas in the 1994 JICA series were the precursor to an Italian championship in 1995, before Button rocked the establishment by finishing second overall in the World Championships the same season.
1996 brought a top five championship finish in the European Formula A series, third in the American championship and a similar position in the one-off World Cup in Japan. His performances were now beginning to attract attention from the car racing world, and the following season Jenson cemented opinions by becoming the youngest European Formula Super A champion in history by taking the title at 17. A win in the Ayrton Senna Memorial meeting was simply an added bonus!
A test in an F3 car almost prompted Button to jump straight into the class, but he opted instead for a seat with the crack Haywood Racing squad in FFord. A slow start to the year meant nothing and Jenson stormed through to win both the British championship and the FFord Festival in his first year in cars. Receipt of the prestigious McLaren/Autosport Young Driver Award was a fitting end to the year.
Progression to Formula Three in 1999 was just one of the options open to Britain's hottest property, and it was little surprise when the Renault-backed Promatecme outfit broke with tradition to sign the youngster. Three race wins led to third overall in the championship behind Marc Hynes and Luciano Burti, but Button ended his year by testing for McLaren, Prost and Williams.
Having outpaced F1 veteran Jean Alesi in his Prost test, Button had to endure a tense week-long shoot-out with Williams reserve Bruno Junqueira to see who would replace Alex Zanardi at the Grove outfit. He got the nod just minutes before the team's line-up was revealed to the media, and apparently only after team boss Frank Williams had an overnight change of heart!
Jenson partnered Ralf Schumacher in the Williams team as it sought to regain its place in the top three with the aid of BMW power. The knowledge that Juan Montoya was waiting in the wings barely seemed to faze the yougster - except perhaps when the press began writing his F1 obituary mid-season - and he responded to the pressure with some sterling drives.
A cert for the points before the new BMW V10 died in the closing stages of his debut, Button inherited a maiden point next time out at Interlagos following the disqualification of David Coulthard, then followed it up by taking a fifth place finish in front of his adoring home crowd at Silverstone in round four. No podiums materialised in the course of the year, but Button became a regular threat for points, eventually finishing eighth in the standings with twelve to his name.
Montoya remained an ever-present threat, however, and, despite outcry from press and public alike, Button was despatched to Benetton to continue his F1 learning curve.
Two years now lay between the Briton and a possible return to Grove but, determined to fight his way back into the Williams fold, Button looked to be battling for points in 2001.
It was not to be, however, and the radical Benetton B201, mated to Renault's equally out-of-the ordinary wide-angle V10, prevented him - and team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella - from making an impact. A shoulder injury early in the year, not helped by his car's lack of power steering, also failed to endear the Briton to team boss Flavio Briatore and, amid rumours that he was to be replaced for 2002, it wasn't until the German GP that he opened his account.
Those two points were to be the only ones of a barren campaign, but somehow Button survived to become a fully-fledged Renault works driver.
The 2002 season started brightly, Button seemed to have made up with team boss Briatore and despite several moments with Jarno Trulli the previous year, the Brit and his new Italian team-mate got on reasonably well. The first few races yielded three straight points scoring results, a fourth in Malaysia, was followed by a fourth in Brazil and at the San Marino GP, Button came home fifth. Jenson had scored eight points in four races, while team-mate Trulli had only finished once - ninth at Imola.
At this point the Renault team was on a high and there was even talk the outfit might be able to beat McLaren and finish third in the Constructors'. McLaren though bounced back, while the Renault team went into a lull as the season progressed. Jenson would score more points as the season wore on, fifth at the European GP, sixth in France before finishing with two points finishes in the final three races (fifth in Italy and sixth in Japan). Overall Button scored 14 points to Trulli's 9, and although he compared less favourably in qualifying, the Brit was hopeful he had done enough to stay on with the Regie camp.
It was not to be however, and Briatore favoured promoting test driver Fernando Alonso to partner Trulli - a decision announced at the French GP. Button thus signed with BAR-Honda in late July, a two-year deal, with options for another two.
The Englishman lined-up alongside Jacques Villeneuve in 2003 and while BAR were not a top team, with sole Honda backing, they did enough to finish the year fifth - best of the rest in the Constructors', after the 'big four', Ferrari, Williams, McLaren and Renault.
Button had a strong season, scoring 17 points, and at the United States GP he almost secured his first podium finish, mechanical woes though unfortunately let him down. His best finishes were therefore two fourths (in Austria and Japan), during a season when he largely overshadowed team-mate, and 1997 F1 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve.
2004 promised much for the Brit, and following BAR's decision to axe JV, a lot rested on his shoulders, as team leader.
He didn't fail though to rise to the challenge, and Jenson went on to score 85 points during the course of the year, as well as getting his first podium. Indeed the BAR-Honda 006 was a good car, and while not capable of beating Ferrari, Jenson finished third in the drivers' championship, while helping BAR-Honda secure second in the Constructors'. He secured 10 podiums in total, including four second place finishes at Imola, Monaco, Hockenheim and Shanghai.
Off-track though, a failed attempt to try and join Williams, somewhat took the shine of his year, and although initially wanting to return to Frank Williams' squad, BAR boss, David Richards fiercely resisted the challenge and having won the Contract Recognition Board hearing, Button remained with BAR in 2005.
After the success of 2004, much was expected of the Button/BAR package in the new season, but unfortunately for the Brit there was no repeat of the heroics of the past season as the team struggled.
An eleventh place finish in the season opener in Australia was followed by retirements in Malaysia and Bahrain before finally Button picked up his first points of the year in San Marino. However that wasn't to last as the Brit was excluded from the results along with team-mate Takuma Sato for a technical infringement; with the team then banned from the following two events in Spain and Monaco.
Pole position in Canada showed that the pace was still there, but it wasn't until the French Grand Prix in July that Button finally scored his first points of the year. From there he would score points at each of the remaining races - including podiums in Germany and Belgium; but 37 points and ninth in the championship standings was much less than Button had hoped for at the start of the year.
Again Button also made headlines off track as BAR and Williams battled again for his signature, this time with the driver wanting to stay rather than make the move he had been so keen on twelve months earlier.
As it was, BAR won the right to keep its driver, and with Honda having now taken full control of the team, Button went into the season hopeful that he could recapture the form of 2004 and win races.
In the end, while he didn't win races plural, he did manage it once, when he took the victory at a rain-affected Hungarian GP. That result was undoubtedly the highlight of his season - and his F1 career so far. All-in-all Jenson enjoyed a pretty strong season, despite a mid-season dip, taking two other podium finishes, when he was third in Malaysia and Brazil, as well as notching up an additional eight points' finishes.
In total he scored 56 points, to finish sixth in the drivers' championship, beating his new team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, by a massive 26 points.
With his strong end to the season – one that saw him amassing more points than any other driver over the last six races - Button headed into the winter with high hopes of continuing his form into 2007.
The reality was much different. The RA107, decked out in its unique ‘world’ livery, proved slow in pre-season testing and, despite claims that its handling deficiencies would be sorted before Australia, resolved they certainly weren’t.
In fact, the car failed to improve significantly over the first half of the season and Button was left staring at the back of the Aguri-run car with which he won his first race in 2006 on more than one occasion.
It took until the French Grand Prix to get on the board, Button battling his way up to eighth for a thankful, but still unsatisfactory, solitary point. Not that it opened the floodgates, as Button continued to struggle until Monza, where the car’s handling issues were not so much in focus around the high-speed circuit.
Taking another eighth place finish, Button finally ended his season on something a high in China with a fifth place finish, albeit only after driving round some tricky weather conditions.
Despite his vocal warnings to the team, Button remained on-board for 2008, buoyed by the knowledge that Ross Brawn was arriving to make his technical presence felt. Even so, it remained to be seen just how long Jenson would be prepared to run at the back end of the midfield if things didn’t improve rapidly…
The back end of the midfield, however, was where the British ace would find himself for the most part of the season, only once making the top ten on the starting grid throughout – and only once troubling the points-scorers, too, with a strong drive to take sixth place in the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona early on.
That his Catalan haul would be his only one of the year few would have predicted, but as Honda increasingly abandoned its development of the recalcitrant and unloved RA108 to switch its attentions to the 2009 machine – when the top flight’s regulations would change significantly – the team’s performance not only stagnated but even regressed, to such a severe extent that in five of the last six races Button was unable to break away from the final two rows of the grid in qualifying, with just team-mate Barrichello and the Force India duo for company.
There were accusations during the campaign that perhaps the Brackley-based outfit’s highest-paid driver was not exactly pulling his weight – exacerbated by Barrichello out-scoring Button by the not insignificant margin of eleven points to three. Crucially, though, the team continued to believe in the man who had delivered it its maiden grand prix victory in Hungary two years earlier – and, as it transpired over the off-season, he continued to believe in them too.
Following Honda’s sudden and shock announcement that it was putting its F1 operation up for sale at year’s end – in response to falling car sales precipitated by the global credit crunch, and poor on-track return of late for its substantial investment in the sport – all concerned faced a winter of discontent, with nobody sure whether or not the cars would be on the grid at all for the start of the 2009 campaign.
Present and correct they were, however, and so was Button who – to his immense credit – had never once wavered in his commitment to the cause and had even agreed to a significant pay cut to help the rebadged and re-named Brawn GP concern to make the field. And when the new, Mercedes-powered, BGP 001 took to the test track and almost instantly blew every one of its rivals into the weeds, it looked like the Frome-born star may have the last laugh after all. The flying start was no mirage and Button romped to six wins in the first seven races, establishing a solid championship advantage despite the presence of team-mate Barrichello and the Red Bull pairing of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
Although no further wins came his way, as the BGP 001 saw its early, double diffuser-enhanced, superiority eroded by its rivals, Button continued to rack up the points, eventually securing the crown at the penultimate round in Brazil. Throughout the year, he marked himself out as perhaps the best overtaker in the field, a necessity required by some poor qualifying performances in the second half, but he ended the year in fighting fashion, challenging Webber to the line in a battle for second under the lights in Abu Dhabi.
Despite his success and seemingly good rapport with the Brawn team, however, Button would not be on board to defend his title. With Mercedes buying into the Brackley-based team, moving on appeared an odd decision, but, perhaps slightly influenced by stalled pay talks, Button opted to take the #1 to McLaren - where he would be paired with his predecessor as champion, Lewis Hamilton. Never before had two successive champions been paired in the same team, and it was interesting to see how Button fared in what was widely recognised as Hamilton's 'house'.
The MP4-25 appeared to have learned from the harsh lessons of 2009, with both drivers topping the times in testing, but Button knew that his reputation as champion would only be seen for real once racing began.
The first five races showed that he would be a consistent points threat, but also showed a degree of inconsistency as wins in Australia and China were bracketed by finishes of seventh, eight and fifth. The Briton would not return to the top step thereafter, but five further podium finishes - including three straight in Turkey, Canada and Valencia - kept him in title contention until the penultimate round. In reality, however, his chances of repeating as champion ended when he was taken out by Sebastian Vettel at Spa, but McLaren refused to make him play second fiddle to Hamilton - a decision that no doubt helped maintain harmony at Woking.
The two Brits will continue in happy tandem in 2011, but Button knows that, again, he needs to improve his qualifying performances if he is to be a contender.
As it turned out, improving his qualifying performance probably wouldn't have helped Button in 2011, for Vettel was nigh-on unbeatable on both Saturday and Sunday, but the Briton still emerged as the champion's closest rival in the points race.
Although he started with just one podium in the first four rounds, back-to-back thirds in Spain and Monaco - the latter a race he could have won but for a McLaren tactical error and safety car intervention - were just the precursor to a remarkable back-to-front victory in Canada, where he pressured Vettel into a last lap mistake in tricky conditions. That result was followed by a sixth and two DNFs, before Button launched into a remarkable run of finishes that elevated him into second in the standings, including a run of eight podiums interrupted only by fourth place in Korea. Two further victories came in Hungary and Japan as Button out-performed team-mate Hamilton and further engendered himself to the McLaren team.
Although everyone expected Hamilton to bounce back from the blues that affected his 2011 campaign, Button ostensibly started the 2012 season as McLaren's team leader, and duly won the opener in Australia before his season become something of a rollercoaster. Thereafter, a frustrating sequence of results through the first half of the season would ultimately put paid to his title ambitions and, although he chased Nico Rosberg home in China, the Briton would not return to the podium until Germany as technical gremlins and pit-lane problems limited his ability to score good points.
Further DNFs in Italy and Korea ruled him out of championship contention, but the second half of the campaign was better, with wins coming in Belgium and Brazil to leave Button just two points adrift of his team-mate, and fifth overall in the final standings.
With Hamilton leaving for Mercedes next year, Button will assume the leading role at McLaren, and will this time be an undoubted team leader as Sergio Perez provides a new challenge in the second car.