October 1997, the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. The final is minutes away when Matt James from Motoring News introduces me to a freckle-faced young lad standing quietly beside him. It’s that karting kid with the name of a cartoon racer we’ve been hearing great things about: Jenson Button.
A year later, standing at the same spot, I watch the 18-year-old cap his first season in cars with victory in the Festival. He’s already wrapped up the British Formula Ford championship and the momentum that will take him to the Australian GP grid in just 18 months time has built up a good head of steam. Back then, it was obvious: this one was something special.
Some wrote it off as hype, but it was so much more than that. Every race Jenson was learning, at times naïve, at times too aggressive. But he’d only make each mistake once.
You could visibly track the progress each weekend – he was growing, maturing, becoming tougher. Winning.
Over the ensuing years that progress would accelerate, but the winning feeling would be replaced by a chasm of yearning. The golden boy’s career became tarnished by time and disappointment. He’d been the great young hope, the good-time playboy and then, in the flash of Lewis Hamilton’s starburst, forgotten.
But if you looked closely, Button had become exactly what he’d promised to be: ultra-smooth, fast, accomplished, professional.
A winner without the car, and thus the results, to back it up.
The toil seemed to have taken its toll last year. But with the first sniff of Brawn GP’s potential the kid I’d seen in FFord was back. In the first three races Jenson has been breathtaking on track, and has handled his sudden good fortune with grace and humour off it. Finally he knows those years of disappointment have not been wasted. Would the current World Champion be handling himself better than he is now if he’d faced a similar dose of F1 adversity? You bet he would.
Despite the unfathomable implosion currently ripping McLaren apart and the daft diffuser row that should have been sorted before the season began (bigger picture not, er, pictured as usual), F1 is riding high right now. Button’s phoenix act has been a joy to watch and, dare I say it ahead of just the fourth GP of 2009, he’s more than just the winner we knew he could be: he’s driving like a champion.
Vauxhall’s withdrawal for 2010 from the British Touring Car Championship, following SEAT’s pullout for this season, is sad news. The Griffin badge has been a constant symbol in the series for over 20 years and the contribution to British racing from Luton has been immense. For that Vauxhall deserves huge credit.
But its withdrawal is not necessarily a disaster for the BTCC. You could argue that having no manufacturer teams is better than having one, as is the case this year, and the quality of cars and privateer teams in 2009 is stronger than at any other time this century. The signs are that the series could flourish without works teams, just as it did during the multi-class years before we got used to big-buck manufacturer support in the 2-litre Super Touring era.
Factory teams were not needed during the days of Capris, Rover SD1s and RS500s. Perhaps they won’t be missed now.