Perceptions are hard to shake off. Jenson Button was the playboy, an overhyped flop who didn’t have the stomach to be a race winner, never mind a World Champion. The perception was wrong, stupidly so. But it never completely went away. Even this year.
We all make judgements: fans, journalists, engineers, team bosses – and drivers. When we asked Sir Stirling Moss about his rivals in our October issue he snapped straight back into the mindset of his youth. Each name we threw at him drew an immediate, long-held perception, subconsciously bracketed as the drivers he had to worry about – and those he didn’t.
Fifty-year-old perceptions from a master are one thing, those made of drivers still racing today quite another. Once formed, we don’t like to change them. It’s uncomfortable to disturb our personal world order. But sometimes we must. Last year I was forced to re-evaluate Felipe Massa, to recognise that I’d underestimated him. He would have been a worthy World Champion then, just as Jenson Button is today.
Britain’s 10th Formula 1 champion has a rarefied talent, a finesse of touch that has echoes of Prost, Lauda, Stewart and yes, Moss. That he needs a car honed perfectly to his needs is his biggest weakness, and it was almost his downfall. But only almost. What matters is that when the opportunity came to him – against the odds – he delivered. An incredible six wins from the first seven races, keeping his cool in a summer of intense pressure and delivering a champion’s drive after another lacklustre qualifying in Brazil. It’s enough: he was the best driver of the year. No question, he deserves his title.
Perceptions don’t come out of thin air. Button, who is far from the modern F1 automaton cliché, hasn’t always helped himself. But the questions, the doubts, stop now. For a change, here’s a feel-good F1 story involving a decent bloke who’s worked long and hard for this moment. Let’s enjoy it with him.
From one British World Champion to another. Nigel Mansell clinched his title 17 years ago (surely not!), and like Jenson Button divided opinion over his talent versus the superiority of the car he drove. Mansell continues to spark debate today, as he did in our office after Simon Taylor met him for lunch. Hence the question on this month’s cover: is Britain still in love with the ‘People’s Champion’?
The ‘Mansell-mania’ years left a sour taste for many purists, but to the world at large Mansell encapsulated that old ‘fish ’n chips’ flavour of sporting drama and soap opera, soaked in patriotic true grit underdog vinegar. Whatever. For all (except maybe Peter Warr) he was a great racing driver. But now, so long after his final Grand Prix (although he never did actually retire…) how is he remembered? The hordes who bellowed for him at Silverstone and Brands moved on to Damon Hill, then Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton – or never went near a race circuit again. The ones who were left are probably reading this magazine.
What’s your perception? Mansell believes the motor racing press had it in for him. He’s still perplexed, even angry, after all this time. Does he deserve more credit as a man who, on his day, had the beating of Senna and Prost? Or has the fervour for ‘Red Five’ faded at last?
Damien Smith, Editor