Contrasting fortunes

In Formula 1 the world can change in a weekend. A struggling team is suddenly a potential contender, while a double World Champion has trouble finding an empty seat
By Nigel Roebuck

Once the season was done and all need for pretence past, McLaren lost no time in severing ties with Fernando Alonso, and no surprise there. For months it had become clear that any question of team and driver continuing together was untenable.

I can still remember the moment, during qualifying at Monaco in 2001, when it registered that here was one of those special talents. A fleeting moment of in-cockpit footage, a blur of blue gloves, a car lost – then saved – a car being forced along faster than it cared to go. In the press room there was a burst of applause, and you don’t get that often.

This was F Alonso, aged 19, and if qualifying 18th does not sound very remarkable, bear in mind that he was in a Minardi, and lined up on race day alongside the Benetton-Renault of Jenson Button, by then a veteran of 21.

It was a significant race, not because either man achieved much in the Monaco Grand Prix – Button finished seventh, while Alonso retired – but because in the background much was going on, and it would directly affect both their careers.

In the course of a phone call with Frank Williams late in 1999, he asked me: “What do you think of Jenson Button?” I had seen little of Jenson to that point, and knew only that he had been highly rated in the karting days and had recently completed a successful first season in F3. Was Williams contemplating running him alongside Ralf Schumacher in 2000?

It seemed he was. “At any rate,” he said, “we’re going to give him a test and see how he goes.” The other youngster under consideration was Bruno Junqueira, searingly quick – if wild – in the F3000 season just gone.

In what became a head-to-head contest, the two tested with Williams, and then tested again. As Patrick Head conceded, there was as good as nothing in it in terms of lap times: what mattered more was the impression Button had made on the team, the way he had responded to the pressure implicit in the situation.

Jenson got the nod, and has been in F1 ever since, while Junqueira, after winning the F3000 championship in 2000, declined to accept offers from middling F1 teams and went off to drive in the CART series. Seven years on, he is still in the USA, now with a lowly team, while Button is among the highest-paid of the Grand Prix drivers. In motor racing, as in all else, a lot can turn on a little.

In his first season Button made a fine impression, but it wasn’t his results that registered as much as his potential: at Spa, the ultimate drivers’ circuit, he qualified third, ahead not only of Ralf Schumacher, but Michael, too.

At Williams, they liked Jenson a lot. “He’s been projected into the cyberspace of fame,” said FW, “and he hasn’t changed a jot.”

In terms of personality, that was true, but for the first time in his life Button had wealth, and set about enjoying it. He also changed teams, not because Williams wished to dispense with him, but because their option on Juan Pablo Montoya – farmed out to the Ganassi CART team for a couple of seasons – was about to expire. If they didn’t put him in the F1 team now they might lose him forever, and that they couldn’t risk.

Thus Button, still contracted to Williams, was ‘placed’ at Benetton, and found himself in the happy position of drawing two salaries. In no time he had moved to Monaco, and started to buy ‘toys’. Over the weekend of the Grand Prix, his yacht was moored close to Bernie Ecclestone’s motorhome, and the master of all he surveys was not impressed by the glistening suntan oil and gold.

“He’s done all right for himself, hasn’t he?” I remarked to Ecclestone. “Yes,” he growled. “Where’d he qualify?”

Seventeenth was the answer, alongside Alonso’s Minardi, which is where we came in. Button’s team-mate, Giancarlo Fisichella, was more than a second quicker. Only four times in 17 races did Jenson out-qualify Giancarlo, and Flavio Briatore’s displeasure was evident.

Plainly Briatore thought that Button was playing at it, that he had made too much money too quickly, and become lazy and complacent.

Flavio’s philosophy on racing drivers is simple and to the point. “A driver,” he says, “is an employee of the company, and a lot of the result depends on him. You have hundreds of people working all hours to make things good for him in his job – and those people are not millionaires, OK? So sometimes, yes, you have to make a driver understand – you don’t keep saying, ‘Oh, you’re the star, you’re so beautiful, you’re so wonderful’. No. When you’re wonderful, you’re wonderful, and when you’re bad, you’re bad. And it’s better you understand that. If you damage the car, I don’t care, but if I see you doing something which is not correct, when it comes to the people working for you, then I get really furious about it…”

Button stayed with the team (by now called Renault) in 2002, and the results were a little better, but now they had a new test driver, in the shape of Alonso, and it was clear at once that he was destined for the race team in ’03. For some time, in fact, Briatore had ‘owned’ Fernando.

“You need to find a talented guy,” he said, “and then invest in him – spend some money – and, OK, sometimes he fails, and sometimes he makes it. Alonso looked impressive, and I took over his contract from Minardi – a big risk, because at the time it was a lot of money. Sure, a lot of people are happy to pay $25m – later!

“After that, I designed Fernando’s career. I left him at Minardi for one year, and then said, ‘You come to Renault, and first you do one year of testing, so you become familiar with the team, the engineers, the system – and you’ll be part of the family’. He did that, and then I swapped him for Button. I think Jenson’s a very good driver, but I didn’t see a long-term future with him. At the time the British press killed me, but I think quite soon everyone recognised that I’d made the right move.”

True enough: in his first season with Renault, Alonso won a Grand Prix. But for Button, too, the sky was brightening. When Briatore decided to dispense with him there was hardly a queue for his services, but David Richards, then running BAR-Honda, was prepared to ignore Ecclestone’s advice and offer Jenson a drive.

It was to be the making of him. In 2003 Button scored a modest 17 points with an unreliable car, but the following year he netted 85 and finished third in the World Championship, beaten only by the dominant Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello. Although he hadn’t won a race, he had taken his first pole position, and was gung-ho about his prospects for ’05. “Some people,” he said, “might say I’m too confident, but if I’m in the right car I believe we’ll be challenging for the world championship. It’s just a matter of whether we’ve moved forward enough from this year, isn’t it?”

There was the rub. Unfathomably, Richards was dispensed with at the end of the season, and BAR-Honda was never the same force again, although in 2006 – the team now completely bought out by Honda – Button scored a long-overdue first victory, in Hungary.

It rained that day and he put in a beautiful drive, devoid of mistakes, from 14th on the grid. But Jenson wasn’t fooled: “If it had been dry, I’d probably have been 11th or 12th…”

He wasn’t fooled by the 2007 Honda, either, knowing from the first test that he faced a summer of making up the numbers. Six points were his lot, and they were hard earned, in a car which lacked for both grip and balance. Only when it rained was he any sort of factor, but he never relaxed his efforts, and that registered in the paddock.

When the season was done, Jenson used words of one syllable. The car, he said, had been ‘a dog’, and unless there was a very significant improvement in Honda’s competitiveness in 2008, he wouldn’t be troubling them in ’09.

Almost simultaneously, it was announced that help was at hand: Ross Brawn, late of Ferrari, was back, refreshed from his year’s fishing sabbatical, and had been appointed team principal of Honda.

The significance of this news could hardly be overstated. For several years, this team had been bloated, slow to respond, devoid of a sense of direction, but the appointment of Brawn – and the fact that he was to be given carte blanche – suggested that the Honda hierarchy had finally accepted that governing by committee had no place in F1.

It had taken a long time for the message to get through. Talk to John Surtees, and he will tell you it was the same 40 years ago.

Michael Schumacher has often spoken of Brawn as ‘a genius’, both as an organiser within the team and as an unsurpassed tactician. Many times, Michael says, he won a race only because Ross, thinking on his feet, had made the right call on strategy.

No one is expecting Brawn to transform Honda overnight – for one thing, he has arrived too late to have any significant effect on the RA108, which was signed off some time ago. But he will bring with him a clear-eyed sense of order and purpose, and it is no surprise that Button is elated at the thought of working with him.

It is ironic, on the face of it, that while Button, after a dreadful year in an appalling car, stood ever higher in the estimation of the paddock, Alonso – only one point shy of World Champion Kimi Räikkönen – saw his stock plummet.

Not his driving stock, you understand. Perhaps there were more mistakes in 2007 than we had expected from Fernando, but often he was imperious, a driver great by any reckoning. No, what came into question – strongly – this season past was the character of Alonso the man.

At Renault they had loved him, and he them, not least because they had grown together. From test driver in 2002, he became World Champion in ’05 and ’06 – the last two seasons, let us remember, in which Schumacher was active. In the course of them, Alonso won 14 Grands Prix, his team-mate Fisichella two.

What always struck them at Renault, though, was that on the rare occasions when Fisichella had the edge, Alonso found it almost impossible to cope – it was as if normality had been suspended, that demons must be at work here. Whatever else, it couldn’t be a simple case of, for once, being outpaced.

Perhaps, as Martin Brundle has suggested, this is a trait common to most of the really great ones, an inability to accept that another human being, in the same car, might once in a while drive it faster than you. Rubens Barrichello has said the same of Schumacher: “If I went quicker than Michael, even in a practice session, he would get very upset, and I never understood that. How could a driver of his greatness be so insecure?”

Ditto Ayrton Senna. In their McLaren days together, Senna became edgy when Gerhard Berger occasionally had the advantage, but at Estoril in late 1993 – when he was fractionally out-qualified by another team-mate – he was almost apoplectic. And why? Because this was young Mika Hakkinen, racing a McLaren for the first time.

“The relationship with Ayrton was very cold,” said Hakkinen, “and that was disappointing. He obviously felt I was a big threat to him, and for sure he didn’t want to help me! Not a team player at all. I never thought Senna was the nicest guy in the paddock…”

Latin pride was at stake here, and it was just so at McLaren again, 14 years on, the difference being that Alonso – like Senna the reigning World Champion – was obliged to suffer humiliation, at a rookie’s hands, over an entire season. And in those circumstances, his composure sometimes disintegrated.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Alonso’s turbulent year with McLaren was that his off-track rages appeared not to carry over into the car. He might scream at Ron Dennis, hurl his helmet at the pit garage wall, kick a motorhome door off its hinges, threaten to give the team grief with the FIA – but then he would climb aboard, and drive a sublime race.

A charming, funny, fellow in repose, Alonso appears susceptible to winding up, and many believe his manager and his father – ever-present, like Anthony Hamilton – have a case to answer here. Whatever, long before the end of the season, the McLaren hierarchy had concluded that another year with Alonso, for all his glorious skills, was out of the question.

Mere days after the last race, the divorce was announced, giving rise to a situation almost unprecedented in Formula 1. Here we were, in November, with a premium team hunting for a driver, and a two-time World Champion looking for a car.

Back in the autumn of 1983, Alain Prost – who had won more races that year than anyone else – found himself on the street, sacked by Renault for reasons that had nothing to do with driving. Happily for him – and for Ron Dennis – John Watson was still arguing about money, and had not yet re-signed his contract, so McLaren was able to install Prost as Niki Lauda’s team-mate. Better yet, Alain was a bargain: where else was he going to go?

As I write, McLaren, after attempting unsuccessfully to buy Nico Rosberg out of his Williams contract, continues to ponder its options for 2008 while Alonso, having received overtures from Toyota and Red Bull, appears headed back to Renault. One must wonder, though, if his old colleagues in the team will ever be able to look upon him in quite the same way again. The advent of Lewis Hamilton, after all, revealed all too clearly aspects of his character which might otherwise have been largely hidden for ever.

That said, it would be unwise to believe that Alonso may have been permanently damaged by the events of 2007. “One of Fernando’s greatest strengths,” Flavio Briatore said, a couple of years ago, “is his ability to put something bad behind him. If something goes wrong, he doesn’t dwell on it – he forgets it, and gets on with the next thing…”