In his happy place

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If Jenson Button justified his move to McLaren in 2010, last season he went some way to making the team his own

Looking back, it seems ludicrous that the end of 2008 saw Jenson Button facing the scrap heap. With only one Grand Prix victory to his credit, the end of the road loomed as Honda pulled out. Then came the fairy tale World Championship triumph with Brawn, the oh-so prescient move to McLaren, and the two 2010 victories which demonstrated that he was, against the expectations of many, far from overawed or overshadowed by his mercurial new team-mate Lewis Hamilton.

But did any of this really prepare us for the 2011 Jenson Button, the first of Hamilton’s team-mates to beat him over the course of a season? The driver who consistently took the fight to the runaway Sebastian Vettel even though his unobtrusive style could so often be overlooked and who might have, given a more competitive car from the outset, fought the German for the title…

Even before Hamilton’s recent personal problems became so heavily publicised, 31-year-old Button’s demeanour stood out at McLaren. Of course everyone there under the more easy-going Martin Whitmarsh regime loved Lewis, the kid who had grown up with them and then surprised them all with his superb first two seasons in Formula 1, but they loved Jenson too. He was good-humoured, relaxed, approachable. An uber-urbane role model who never made waves, always maintained an even strain. It’s his trademark. Since I first met him in 1998, I’ve never seen Jenson publicly discombobulated, even when it seemed the title was slipping through his fingers in the second half of 2009. The unappreciative have at times suggested that he’s simply boring; those who look deeper see a man who is very much at peace with himself, who understands just where he fits into the overall perspective of one of the most competitive eras there has ever been in F1. And if there is one thing that really stood out in 2011, it is that more and more observers are coming to see where Button fits in, too. It surprised them.

Ask the man himself the obvious question – was the last his best season in Formula 1 – and his response is instant.

“No, because I’m not winning the World Championship.”

It’s a typical racer’s reply, and confirmation that while he might have achieved his dream of becoming World Champion, he would like to validate that success by doing it again. The success boosted his confidence, but has not assuaged the hunger that set him on the F1 road in the first place.

“I am very happy with second place overall,” he adds after a moment’s reflection, referring to his runner-up status to Vettel. “I feel that I got the best out of the equipment, the team and myself. I think I played a good role in helping the team to move forward. But no, it doesn’t count for me as my best season because I didn’t fight for the title.”

Button seemed to do everything but in 2011, however. After the wet/dry wins in Australia and China the previous season, he won brilliantly in the rain in Canada after climbing back from last place, hounding Vettel and passing him after pushing him into a mistake; hung tough on tyre choice in Hungary to win again after a great wheel-to-wheel scrap with Hamilton; and beat Vettel fair and square after some superb tyre management on a bone dry track in Japan. In between he was strong pretty much everywhere: second in Malaysia, Italy, Singapore and India; third in Spain, Monaco, Belgium, Abu Dhabi and Brazil; fourth in China and Korea. He retired only twice, in Britain when a wheel was improperly secured in his pitstop, and Germany where the power-steering failed.

If Canada was his greatest victory, Abu Dhabi showed the depth of his ability to operate clearly while racing wheel-to-wheel as he struggled with a periodic KERS problem. His engineers told him how to reset the system and he had to do this continually as it functioned and then malfunctioned. “It meant pushing lots of buttons on the steering wheel every couple of laps because it only returned intermittently,” he explains. “So I’d arrive at a corner and not know whether I had any engine braking because I had no warning. So selecting the right spot at which to brake was tough.” Nevertheless, he finished on the podium, moving Whitmarsh to comment: “During all that time he was trying to keep rhythm, trying to keep pace, trying to defend position, trying to get through traffic, his brake balance was swinging wildly with the failure of KERS or not. So it was really an incredible job by him because it makes a huge difference, not just in lap time but also in balance. Every time it went off he just had to arrive at a corner with a violently different brake balance. I imagine at any of these hairpins, if you are coming down to them at quite a big speed wondering, ‘Have I got a functioning KERS system and is my brake balance appropriate?’, that is not an easy thing mentally or physically to deal with. It’s difficult to convey the challenge we gave him. It was a great, great job to be on the podium with all that.”

If Jenson Button was Ayrton Senna, he would have gone into Lewis Hamilton’s camp intent on deconstructing it and making it his own as Senna had done with Alain Prost, just as Nelson Piquet attempted to do with Nigel Mansell when he joined him chez Williams. But Button is his own man, and simply went into Hamilton’s team with an open-minded, open-eyed curiosity, keen to see where he stood in comparison with one of the greatest young talents on the stage. There was no master plan to take control, no innate wish to prove the doubters wrong, just a desire to fit in and to learn, to do his best and see where that left him.

“I’m very, very happy with the decision that I made,” he says of the switch, before adding with a laugh: “I’ve made a lot of wrong decisions but I’m really happy with the one to move to McLaren. With Brawn I had some of the best experiences of my life and in the end I achieved what I wanted to achieve – the World Championship. But one of the many things that excited me was how much McLaren improves its cars. And the challenge of McLaren was the main reason why I made the move. I have a lot of respect for Lewis as a driver, and he’d been seven years with the team. For me it was like going to a new school. But it kept me hungry, and it still does.”

Clearly, having greater input to the design of the 2011 MP4-26 was an advantage. “That definitely helped. The MP4-26 suited me more. The balance was where I like it. My input was to help develop the car in the direction that I like. A lot of it centred on getting a rear end that was stable on corner entry, which everyone knows is what I always work for.”

After an unsettled period of pre-season testing in which its blown floor did not work, McLaren went to Melbourne with an untried car, but it did work; Lewis was a surprise second, Jenson sixth. “But the car is so much better now!” Button grins. “Actually, it was pretty good in Melbourne considering that we hadn’t really tested it in the form that we raced it there. We hadn’t had any time to set it up after the launch car had been changed because of the problems we’d experienced all through testing with the new exhaust system. We were on our back foot, whereas Red Bull was completely ready. So all year we have worked so hard in so many areas, but most especially with the blown diffuser and aerodynamic efficiency. Every step we made improved the car slightly, and it’s great that the team listens to what I have to say. We made really good steps, increased the grip and got to the point where we could really look after the tyres, too.”

Ah, the tyres… If the less durable Pirellis were designed for anyone, they might as well have been created specifically for the man whose smooth and flowing style at the wheel has so often been compared to that of Prost. It hurt him with Brawn in 2009; in 2011 it was a trump card. His savvy and engineering understanding, the patience to work his way through from less than headline grid positions, to race effectively yet often unobtrusively, created the situation in which he truly came of age. The expression ‘matured intensity’ goes a long way to encapsulating why Jenson Button had such a great year.

If 2011 wasn’t his best in F1, does he at least concede that he was driving better than ever?

He pauses for a long time, considering the proposition. “It was more a mental thing, back in 2009,” he says. “I built up such a huge points lead, and then suddenly there was no pace in the car and the lead was dwindling as Seb and Rubens [Barrichello] started to catch me, so that was very tough.

“But I had a lot of confidence in my ability after winning the World Championship. I had achieved my original dream, and that meant a huge amount to me.”

Interestingly, he avoids a direct answer to the question, but observers are adamant that he has never driven better, never got more from his car and himself.

He has always been a laid-back character, and as 2011 developed the difference between his comfort zone and Lewis’s became ever more starkly drawn. The latter would hide himself away, keep himself to himself, and by Korea, his nadir, he was avoiding any eye contact or apparent invitation to shoot the breeze. Button, by contrast, always seemed to be available, surrounded by the key members of Team Button, the people who are crucial to his feeling of well-being: father John, girlfriend Jessica Michibata, manager Richard Goddard, and friends Chris Buncombe and Richard Williams. John Button, a colourful and amusing character variously known as Sloop John B or Papa Smurf, has always been there in the background for his boy; Goddard is the quiet businessman who refused to take payment initially when he took over Button’s oft-troubled management, telling him to pay him what he thought he was worth only at the end of the season; Buncombe and Williams are racing drivers Button has known since his school days; and Jessica is his delightful companion who leads her own life as an international model and UN ambassador yet knows as much about tyre compounds as anyone in the paddock because she takes such an active interest in her man’s career as well. Alternately naïve and savvy, she’s another reason why the now worldly Button sees the bigger picture of life.

“I’m not always relaxed!” he laughs, and Monaco was a case in point as pressures close to him added to those that every driver feels in the Principality. “It can never be perfect all the time. But more often than not I do feel very relaxed within the team itself, and within Team Button.

“You have to live in the moment. You have to concentrate on your work. But to do that to your best you need the right people around you. Racing has been a massive part of my life for 23 years, so you think of the people you care about and gather them around you.”

Button’s remarkable ascent has coincided with one of the greatest eras Formula 1 has ever seen, reminiscent of the high-calibre ’60s when Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney, John Surtees and Graham Hill did battle.

It’s a suggestion that Button embraces warmly. “Yes, I think so,” he agrees. “It’s a tough time to be in F1, but that’s such a great challenge. And for me to finish ahead of a double World Champion (Fernando Alonso), a World Champion (Hamilton) and a multiple World Champion (Michael Schumacher) is a great feeling, and especially great to see that we are usually among the top four cars on the grid. There are five World Champions and Mark Webber and Felipe Massa are also very close, so there are seven of us running really close at many races.”

The almost magnetic attraction between Hamilton and Massa apart, driving standards are currently very high in F1, but the competition is perhaps even hotter than ever before since the cars are generally so closely matched.

“We are all pretty aggressive,” says Button, who is generally regarded as the least hard-nosed of the bunch, Mr Nice Guy. “We all push to the limit, and though we all know where that limit is we are running literally millimetres apart so there’s always potential for us to touch. We all know it could happen tomorrow.”

He breaks off with a sheepish grin. “Of course, Lewis and I did touch in Canada, but that really was a racing incident!” Try looking in the mirrors of an F1 car running in the rain, and you’ll see what he means. He could see nothing as Hamilton sought to pass him on the pit straight in Montréal.

Many drivers prefer not to open up about their rivals, but Button isn’t one of them. So is Lewis his toughest rival?

“He’s tricky!” he says. “It’s always tough to race your team-mate. Even if the balance of the car is not 100 per cent, the way I like it, Lewis can be very quick. I need a car that is more stable. When the car isn’t right it makes me work very hard as a driver to get the car I want. In that respect Lewis is very strong.

“I’m a straightforward person, I think. I don’t take any shit. I know that if something bothers me I have to get it on the table, that’s important. I don’t hold back and I say what things I have to say face to face and not through other people. As far as things with Lewis have been concerned, I apologised to him during the break in Canada, and in 2010 there was only one time we had words and that was in Turkey. I said something to him as soon as I got out of the car. We resolved those issues immediately, and we moved on.”

*

Hungary gave Button a shot at redemption after Canada, the chance to demonstrate his ability to race wheel to wheel with his team-mate, without contact. They put on a superb display. “It was very satisfying to come out on top, but you know that Lewis is always going to be a very tough contender,” he concludes.

And Vettel, the unstoppable champion?

“Funnily enough I haven’t really raced him much this year. But he did piss me off in Japan.” That was where Vettel pulled hard to the right immediately after the start, blocking Button’s challenge from the other front-row position to the point where he had two wheels on the grass and called over the radio for the young German to be penalised for what was generally seen to be a bit of forcefulness that was right on the borderline of acceptability.

“That sort of thing is frustrating because it can ruin your race,” Button says. “I was angry at the time because the adrenaline was running. I felt that he kept coming when I wasn’t alongside him but had half my car up the inside. I thought he was coming across more than I expected and didn’t give me any room and I was on the grass. At that moment in time I felt that it was a little bit more than was needed.”

They had a minor exchange afterwards in the press conference, in which a little of Button’s hidden steel came through. He had been gracious, acknowledging Vettel’s success in winning the World Championship again. “It should be Seb that we talk about, as this guy has done a great job this year,” he said. “However hard we have tried we haven’t been able to touch him in a lot of races, so congratulations.”

But as they discussed the incident, Vettel offered: “Initially I wasn’t sure where he was, I didn’t really see him. I thought he was either on the right or he was far away on the left. I saw Lewis and I thought I had a good start and kept moving to the right, looking for Jenson. By the time I saw him, I realised that maybe I was a little bit too far to the right and then he was backing off. Obviously no intention to put him in any danger…”

As they moved on to talk of the remainder of the season, Button said: “Hopefully we will race exactly the same,” to which Vettel replied jocularly, referring to Jenson parking at the wrong end of the pitlane and having to run back up it: “So you’re always going to park just after the chequered flag?”

“Yeah,” Jenson said quietly. “I might not lift off next time you pull across at the start, though.” What he didn’t say then was that he knew the real truth. “The worst thing was for him to say that he didn’t see me, when I could see him staring at me in his mirrors…”

Vettel, of course, had a moment of his own when Alonso put him on the grass on his way to victory at Monza, and Button immediately acknowledges that the Spaniard is one of his toughest rivals. “He is very intelligent, a real thinker. And he’s been around so long and seen so much that beating him is very tough, but he’s fair. He’ll push to the limit, so when you are able to come out on top after a fight with him, you really enjoy it.”

Interestingly, the man he rates as the hardest in a close fight is Webber. “Mark doesn’t give you a millimetre more than you need,” he says, respect rather than censure evident in his tone. “He’s the toughest nut, and he takes more risks than the others.”

Because of the man he is Button accords his rivals their due deference, but at the same time the inner confidence he radiates these days makes it crystal clear that, given a fully competitive McLaren from the outset in 2012, he sees no reason why he shouldn’t beat them all again on his way to a second world title.

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