Simon Taylor

Time was when an ambitious young driver could slide into F1 almost unnoticed, develop his skills quietly and rise towards the top at his own pace. But today it’s all about the glare of the media. No longer is Fl the preserve of specialist magazines: every tabloid, every broadsheet has its motor racing writer. TV terrestrial, cable and satellite, radio local and national, all know that F1 news is big news. We should be pleased about that.

It’s not so long ago that Fleet Street sports editors did not regard motor-racing as a sport. Sports pages were for football, cricket, athletics and the rest When S Moss won the Italian GP at Monza in a Vanwall, a couple of jingoistic paragraphs appeared on the foreign news pages of the better papers. Only if there’d been a gory accident would there be photographs.

Now we’re at the other extreme, and the British papers are hungry for a new motor-sporting hero. We’ve lost Nigel Mansell, and now we’ve lost Damon Hill. Eddie Irvine, despite his claimed sexual athletics, doesn’t quite fill the bill; Coukhard is too clean-cut, Herbert too down-to-earth. What they want is a David Beckham on wheels. And in young Jenson Button they believe they’ve found him.

A few days before Williams’ lowkey Monday morning team launch in the Barcelona paddock, word got out that it just might be Unknown British Boy Lands Big Works Drive. The last flight out of Heathrow on Sunday night was crammed with journalists and photographers from daily papers, metaphorically wearing trilbies with cards saying PRESS stuck in their hatbands. As it turned out, they very nearly had a wasted journey.

I heard soon after Christmas that Frank Williams intended to solve the problem of Zanardi’s replacement by testing Button back-to-back at Jerez with regular test driver Bruno Junqueira. It seemed a good time to pop over to Spain. At any given time there are a lot of young drivers who show real talent: currently the likes of Darren Manning, Marc Hynesiustin Wilson. On the face of it Junqueira, a Formula 3000 race winner with a lot of F1 testing experience for Williams, seemed the obvious choice, and I wanted to find out why people have been saying Button is so special.

When I got to a windswept Jerez, deserted apart from five Fl teams grinding relentlessly through their test programmes, the new WilliamsBMW was playing up, and for the two days I was there neither Button nor Junqueria got much running. That meant I was able to spend some time with this young man who was winning kart races when he was nine, and raced all over Europe and as far afield as Japan while still a schoolboy. I found him courteous, level-headed, goodhumoured and mature, and I quickly realised he’s far better equipped to cope with the grinding pressure of media celebrity than most people of his age: but, as became clear a couple of weeks later when he got the drive, he will need to be.

The reason why the Fleet Street boys nearly had a wasted journey is that the decision to go with Button happened incredibly late. The press conference that Monday was called for 11 am, and Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head were still deliberating, locked in the motorhome, at 10.45. Finally the two drivers were summoned: Junqueira went in first and was told the bad news, and then Button went in, to be told that he was now a Formula One driver. And, a quarter of an hour behind schedule, the press conference began and the waiting world heard the news.

The British papers went to town. The Sun ran it on their back page and over a spread inside, and also wrote a leader about Jenson. The next day the Sun ran an interview with Jenson’s dad; the day after, with his mum; the day after that with his girlfriend Kim. Several of the broadsheets had already run personality pieces about him: the Daily Telegraph had devoted a half-page to him, managing to spell his name wrong. Chris Evans, the ginger-haired media mogul, was anxious to send his private jet to Spain to whisk him to London to star on his curious Friday evening TV show, and David Frost wanted to give him the Sunday moming treatment he normally reserves for rising politicians. I gather Jenson refused Chris Evans, but accepted David Frost.

All this within days of his 20th birthday, plus an estimated £350,000 annual salary, would be enough to turn most young heads. But so far it doesn’t seem to have turned Jenson’s. In any case, he has a far more important priority in the few remaining weeks before the Australian Grand Prix: to concentrate on his fitness. No doubt he’s every bit as fit as any professional F3 driver should be, but the physical jump in stamina required to cope with a long F1 race in typical cockpit heat will inevitably need a lot of work, particularly on his neck.

Jenson Button is the youngest driver in the 51-year history of the F1 World Championship to get a fullseason contract with a major team. New Zealander Mike Thackwell gets his name in the Guinness Book of Records because he was 19 years 5 months and 29 days when he started the third Tyrrell from the back of the grid in the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix. But that race was stopped after a Lap 1 shunt, and for the restart he had to hand over his car to team-leader JeanPierre Jarier. Four weeks earlier Thackwell tried to qualify an Arrows at Zandvoort, without success, and the only other GP for which he qualified was Canada four years later.

A far more worthy contender for the title of youngest F1 driver is the Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez, Pedro’s precociously-talented younger brother, who was just a month older than Thackwell when his sports car successes earned him a seat in one of the four works Ferraris for the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. This race was of course overshadowed by the crash which cost the lives of von Trips and 14 spectators. So it’s almost been forgotten that young Ricardo was the sensation of practice, qualifying second fastest to join his team leader von Trips on the front row.

The following season, by which time he’d had his 20th birthday, Ricardo did four more Grands Prix for Ferrari, finishing in the points twice. Then, in practice for his home Grand Prix, he lost control of his Rob Walker Lotus, and was killed.

Chris Amon, at the start of a distinguished Fl career that lasted 14 seasons and 96 Grands Prix but unjustly never brought him a victory, did three World Championship rounds in the six weeks before his 20th birthday in 1963 in a Parnell Lola. Interestingly, he became the only teenager to have finished a Grand Prix when he came home seventh in the French GP at Reims. Argentinian Esteban Tuero missed the same feat by four days when he brought his Minardi home eighth at Imola in 1988.

If Button does start the Australian Grand Prix on March 12th, he will be precisely one day younger than Eddie Cheever was when he started the South African Grand Prix in a Hesketh in 1978. So Jenson will become the fifth youngest man ever to start a World Championship Grand Prix.

There is no doubt the talent’s there. When he finally had a proper run in the Williams-BMW at Barcelona he adapted to it miraculously quickly, lapping faster than Junqueira even though he was left-foot braking for the first time in a racing car (his karting experience will of course have done him no harm there). Earlier, in December, he was unexpectedly summoned by Frost to Barcelona, a circuit he’d then never seen, and in a handful of laps he was apparently matching Jean Alesi’s times. He has already coolly turned down offers from McLaren, Stewart and Prost, mainly because and who can blame him he wants to go racing now, rather than a deal that says “test this year, perhaps race next year…”

But what remains hidden in the lap of the gods (and in the raceworthiness of the new Williams) is whether his undoubted talent will be able to develop and flourish in his crucial first F1 season. If the car fails to work well, and doesn’t give him the cockpit time to learn and keep learning, the same spotlight of publicity will be there to crow over failures that may be beyond his control. And his team-mate Ralf Schumacher is now one of the most talented half-dozen on the grid: he may prove as daunting a team-mate as others have found his brother to be.

Jenson Button’s call has come early, and in F1 you rarely get a second chance. It’s a cruel sport and a tough business. But, if he’s that good, if he really has got what it takes, he’ll survive all that. The setbacks and the failures will be the challenges on the way that will build him into a winner.

Good luck to you ,Jenson. Frankly, I couldn’t care less if you’re the tabloids’ next David Beckham. For your sake, I hope you’re not. I care much more whether you’re a future World Champion, and when you get there I’ll be cheering too.