Jenson Button was always special, it just took longer than it should have for his stars to align so he could prove it. The grains of truth were always there, certainly from his stellar rise from Formula Ford to a Grand Prix debut in just two years, and even through the subsequent eight long years of hard graft in Formula 1, first at Benetton/Renault and on to BAR/Honda.
If the dice had landed differently, the long wait could have been so much shorter. His current team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, recalls that Button’s irst taste of F1 was in a Häkkinen/Newey-era McLaren, at a wet Silverstone in a prize test for winning a young driver award. “I wasn’t there, but I remember our then team manager Davey [Ryan] coming back and saying this guy was so cool, so smooth and so in control of his emotions,” he says. “So we were impressed.”
McLaren didn’t sign him. Instead, his second F1 test was for Alain Prost’s team, and the four-time World Champion, with whom Button would be compared in later years because of their shared smoothness of style, was also impressed by this teenage prodigy with the cartoon name. But it would be Frank Williams who would take the plunge and give him a contract to race.
Only for one season, though: Juan Pablo Montoya was always odds-on to take his seat, whatever Jenson managed in that rookie 2000 season. A point in his second race, qualifying third at Spa, inishing fourth at Hockenheim, out-qualifying respected team-mate Ralf Schumacher… it wasn’t enough. So he was farmed out to a sceptical Flavio Briatore and a tricky Benetton that he could rarely tune to his reined ‘narrow window’ style. The “slog”, as Whitmarsh puts it, had begun.
These years would provide the grit in the oyster. He grew up, matured, learned how to massage a team for his own interests, gained the respect of race engineers. In 2004 he found himself in a competitive BAR and inished third in the World Championship.
Just his luck that it should be the height of the Schumacher/Ferrari era. Race wins were always just out of reach. That first victory, at the Hungaroring in 2006, came at the 113th time of trying, thanks to his renowned skill in changeable conditions, but also with a heavy dose of luck.
Then Honda blew its potential and gave him a couple of dud cars, and two years were wasted. When the Japanese giant pulled the plug, Button looked all washed up. Amazing that it was all just four and a half years ago. Jenson could never have imagined how his life was about to change. Ross Brawn, Honda’s compensatory millions and a decent Mercedes engine gave him the chance he’d always been searching for, and he made it pay. Victory in six of the irst seven races for one-season-only Brawn GP would carry him to his grail, perhaps the most unlikely World Championship we’ve ever seen.
But since then, he’s more than lived up to his title. Like James Hunt before him, becoming World Champion gave Button an assurance and conidence to perform even better than in his title year – and remarkably, back at the team where it all began.
When Whitmarsh called him from a Heathrow baggage carousel on his return from the 2009 Brazilian GP, he didn’t really expect to lure the new champ to McLaren. “If I was to describe the nature of that call I would have said ‘this is a long shot, but it’s worth a go and we’ll see what happens’,” the team principal says. “But I heard the words, he said he was interested and we decided to pursue it. And we pursued it to a conclusion very quickly.” Was Button mad, we thought?
“For someone as intelligent as Jenson is,” says Whitmarsh, “to evaluate the situation and determine that he wanted the challenge of being measured in a McLaren against Lewis Hamilton showed an extraordinary level of self-belief, of commitment, hunger and bravery, because he was very comfortable where he was.”
The opportunistic wins that have followed, the hard-charging victories such as his unforgettable Canadian GP performance last year, the dominance of Melbourne in March… finally Button has delivered on the early promise of 1998, when I followed his almost vertical progress in the cut and thrust of Formula Ford. During those first raw days in racing cars, he made mistakes, but those errors would rarely be repeated, and the sunny smile and his easy-going attitude made him impossible to dislike. Nothing much has changed.
That smile and attitude won over the engineers and mechanics at McLaren almost immediately. Thanks to his approach, they love to work for him because they know he gives his all, under the microscope at the highest-profile British team, going head to head with a rival world champion… a combustible prospect that somehow has never truly caught alight, even in Montréal last year when the pair collided.
“Jenson deserves the major credit for the harmony that exists,” says Whitmarsh. “I hope I help and create the environment, and Lewis helps too. But frankly the person who is most disarming, most straightforward and mature is Jenson.
“I remember hosting the first lunch with them before we’d turned a wheel in anger. One of the things I said was that there is no one out there in the world of media that is interested in how well you guys get on together. They’re only interested in any hint or suspicion that you don’t. They will try to contort or encourage words that promote conlict, or the perception of it, and you both have to be aware of that. “Instead, what we have is a situation where if one wins the other puts on a victory shirt and takes part in good-spirited celebrations. I am an extraordinarily lucky team principal to have them.”
In terms of sheer natural speed, Hamilton is hard to match – and that goes for anyone in F1 during this golden generation of Grand Prix drivers.
But for all his easygoing charm, Button has an inner steel, a professional intensity and the intelligence to win another title. The team-mates carry a mutual respect. Lewis will always fancy his chances against Jenson in a straight ight, but as Britain’s most recent champion has proven time and again, his stars are now perfectly aligned, and the grit is now a shiny, bright pearl. His power should never be underestimated again.
GRANDS PRIX: 215*
POLE POSITIONS: 7
FASTEST LAPS: 7
KARTING: 1991 British Cadet Champion, 1992 Junior TKM Champion, 1997 Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup and European Super A Champion.
SINGLE SEATERS: 1998 British Formula Ford Champion and 1998 Formula Ford Festival winner *as of Canadian GP 2012
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