First-rate first year

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Jenson Button was meant to be a stopgap at Williams, just keeping the seat warm, but he grabbed his opportunity and exceeded all expectations, including his own. Mark Hughes reveals the making of a future Champion.

It might seem impudent to run a feature in the pages of Motor Sport on Jenson Button, a 20 year-old Formula One new boy yet to score a podium place. But this is different. This is a story about a phenomenon. His precociousness upset the Establishment; his natural way both with a car and with people made them eat their words. If you’re looking for the next Schumacher or Moss, or Mansell or, perhaps closest of all in terms of what he does behind the wheel, Prost he’s arrived. Repackaged bright and brash for the new century, but set to be part of that lineage.

He was pushed into the lion’s den of F1 from behind a curtain at Barcelona, blinking as the flashlights popped. ‘Fleet Street’ rubbed its collective hands. A teenie driving for Williams the very team with which ‘Our Nige’ and ‘Demon Damon’ had carved out their careers what a fantastic story. In the nick of time, too. With Hill’s retirement, and Mansell long since tucked away on his Woodbury golf complex, their job security as F1 reporters had wobbled but was now it was safe.

This open-armed welcome given him by the popular press, however, jarred within the sophisticated, conservative world that is F1. Soon it was more than just flashguns popping at him as the sport’s good and great lined up to have their critical say. Jackie Stewart: “He’s just a puppy. He’ll mess on the carpet. He should have gone to finishing school first.” Add to that Scheckter, Brundle, Hakkinen and Salo, to name a few, who came up with more of the same.

‘He’s just a puppy. He’ll mess the carpet. He should go to school first’ – Jackie Stewart

Worse was to come as Button the good-looking boy next door, hip, cool and out to enjoy life was embraced as the first motor racing darling of Laddism. TFI Friday, Loaded: these are icon titles for the ‘party on’ 18-30 generation and Jenson was their New Big Thing. And loving every minute of it.

His management Eastender Dave Robertson and former F3 wild man Harald Huysman capitalised big time and Jenson Button merchandising was soon outselling all but Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. Sure, Damon had not been slow to capitalise on his racing success, but this was different, given that Button was a huge commercial moneyspinner before he’d earned his spurs. It was perceived as being disrespectful to the hallowed ground of F1. Even within Williams, it seemed. Early in the season, Patrick Head commented that Jensonmania baffled him. “It’s like the motor racing equivalent of the Spice Girls,” he said, “and there’s no track record to back it up.”

Not yet. But even Patrick, definitely more conservative about drivers than Frank Williams, had been taken aback by Button’s pace and consistency at the showdown that earned him the nod over test driver Bruno Junqueira as Alex Zanardi’s replacement.

“I’d pretty much decided we should have Junqueira,” says Head, “because we were already familiar with him, and the engineers had a high regard for his technical understanding. But then Jenson did a test for us at Jerez that suddenly made the decision very difficult. We then went to Barcelona and Jenson used a left-foot braking set-up for the first time it wasn’t something he’d done in a car before. And, instantly, on a track he’d never seen before, he was very quick.” Suddenly, from auditioning a solid stand-in while waiting for the contractual availability of their big white hope, Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya, it dawned on Williams that they might just have stumbled on the new Prost as they waited for the new Senna. For Frank, someone whose enthusiasm for great drivers is easily aroused, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made. With a bit of encouragement from BMW’s Gerhard Berger, he overruled the consensus within the team and took a flyer on Button. “I was excited by him,” he says, simply.

That didn’t change Button’s stand-in status — Williams was still determined to take up its option on Montoya, and Ralf Schumacher is in contract for a further two years, but it ensured that, contractually, Button is a Williams man long-term. He will race with Benetton-Renault for the next two years, but will still be paid by Williams and is expected to return thereafter.

The comparisons with Prost would keep recurring. It was apt, in fact, that his first experience of an F1 car had been at the wheel of a Prost, some weeks before the Williams test. It was his sensational form in that, and a ringing endorsement from Main himself, which attracted the Williams interest.

“Compared to Ralf [Schumacher],” says Head, “Jenson turns in earlier and brakes earlier. His entry speed is sometimes down on Ralps but his mid-corner speed is often quicker because his style seems to enable him to get on the power earlier.” Watch Button through a fast corner and his car seems to turn in more lazily than his team-mate’s, its body language far less darty. The power comes on early and beautifully progressively and there is often a bit of exit oversteer, but not in an unsubtle powerslide ; more like the whole car is floating, dancing and, as the power comes in, the back dances a bit further.

On the slow stuff the technical corners, Button seems to have a patience lacking in his team-mate. The mechanical grip of the current generation of narrow-track, groove-tyred F1 car is not great and where Ralf seems to get frustrated, Jenson doesn’t. It’s about feel.

Which brings us to one of the most remarkable facets of Button’s first F1 season: the lack of accidents. Prior to the first round in Melbourne, the brothers Schumacher were telling Jenson how he had to be particularly careful on a street circuit as a locked wheel could mean tagging a wall rather than missing an apex. He replied, only partly tongue-in-cheek: “But I don’t have accidents.” Michael was amused, Ralf was enraged. It’s a fine line between supreme belief and arrogance, just as it is between a great lap and an off. But he treads both immaculately.

‘The greats don’t need to be told. They just do it. Jenson is like this.

“The great ones,” says Berger, “don’t need to be told guys like Michael Schumacher. They don’t need to look left or right, they just do it. Jenson is like this.” In fairness, Button did tag the wall in

Melbourne practice and ripped a corner off his car, but that was the only such incident all year. The others tangling with Truth at Spa and Indy, getting caught out in the concertina as Schumacher M braked unexpectedly at Monza were just racing incidents.

If Ralf felt vindicated at Jenson’s incident in Australia, he was stunned two weeks later in Brazil where Button on a track as complex and demanding as Interlagos and which was completely new to him outqualified his team leader. This wasn’t a no-hoper he was outpacing. This was Ralf Schumacher, with a reputation as one of the fastest, most aggressive drivers in the sport. The same Ralf Schumacher who Head referred to preseason when talking of Button’s chances: “If he thinks he’s going to be able to go in and start out-qualifying Ralf in his first season, he’s not being realistic.”

It happened again at Silverstone, one of only three F1 tracks Button knew before a race weekend got under way. There he was fastest non-McLaren/Ferrari. In Canada, after a delay, his wet-weather laps were fantastic. He was trading times with Michael Schumacher, though few noticed as he was way down the field.

Taking Ralf as a barometer, Button’s form, though outstanding for a newcomer in only his third season of car racing, was patchy until mid-season. It was during a wet practice session at Hodcenheim that something clicked. From this point onwards Button was sensational. With low downforce on a wet track, “I just suddenly felt really on top of the car in a way I hadn’t before,” he says. “I can’t really describe how or why; it just felt different After that, I started learning things quicker than I’d ever learned before.” His learning curve, in fact, went off the scale.

At the beginning of that race he was last away, his engine cutting out on the formation lap. By the end of it, he was pressining David Coulthard’s McLaren for third. As the wet conditions caught out many more experienced drivers, all you saw of Button were fabulous, back-from-the-brink oversteer saves. In a Williams that was good rather than great.

It was probably significant that by this time he had evolved his own set-up, rather than following Ralf’s route as he had done carlier in the year. He runs a much softer front end than Ralf, and usually less wing, too. The car is allowed to ‘breathe’ more. At Spa — the acknowledged driver’s track — the qualifying result of this was devastating. This time, he didn’t just outqualify Ralf; he did the same to Michael to take third on the grid. Along the way he was the only driver to notice that the 100-yard board for La Source was placed about 25 yards too late. His total belief in his own senses overwhelmed what the board was telling him.

Even the most cynical had their heads turned by his performance that weekend. Button, however, didn’t hold a grudge against these late converts. Someone who knows like he knows can afford not to. His manner right from the off has been natural, open, and there seems no malice in him. Asked questions on the record he will answer with as much frankness as possible. That dealt with, in the next breath he’ll be talking to you as a fellow human rather than as something a long way down the food chain, unlike many others in the paddock. He’ll even hang about to chat preferably not about racing after his allotted press time. It’s totally unforced, completely genuine. He’ll happily take what’s on offer in the way of, say, limos or exclusive parties, but doesn’t give the impression of taking it seriously or getting caught up in it. The racing is still the focus and his feel for where the balance point is between work and play appears finely-honed.

By now it felt almost normal that, at Suzuka renowned as the most difficult track to learn Button should be among the quickest on his second day there, in the thick of the Ferrari/McLaren group in practice, the nearest thing to them in qualifying and race. There were only three drivers operating at an extraordinary level that weekend the two tide contenders and Button. It looked that way on the track, the stopwatches confirmed it.

Patrick Head was convinced. Frank Williams was vindicated.

As Button drove down the Suzuka pidane for his final qualifying run, he said over the radio: “I’m going to give it large, boys.” Hardly F1-speak. Frank shook his head, acutely aware of the generational and cultural gap. But he was smiling. No wonder.

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