Four years on, in Malaysia, a sprinkle helped Jenson to that landmark first podium with BAR. Hungary 2006, again through the rain, brought the memorable first win and this year, of course, two brilliant wet-dry splash-’n’-grab victories (Australia, China) were the product of smart thinking allied with the finest driving skills – always at their most evident when conditions are at their worst.
Button’s filigree talent is deftly described by Jonathan Neale, MD of McLaren Racing, as that of “a precision racing machine”.
Quickly, conversation with Neale returns to what Button has brought to McLaren, rather than a more predictable strain of how the team’s many layers of expertise, evolved over decades, have provided Jenson with the perfect platform on which to operate at a new high. “We thought it would take longer for Jenson to adapt to us and for us to adapt to him,” Neale notes, “but he made it incredibly easy for us. Richard and John have come in and helped with a little bit of a warming of the soul of McLaren. But at the same time Jenson is data-driven, rational and happy to rely on information given to him. He also has an open-mindedness that’s so refreshing, which means we can share and talk about things without there being a sense of ‘don’t offend’. And I like the way Jenson will interact with Lewis and speak his mind.”
He’s a big boy then, a grown-up who has been around a while, has learned the ropes – indeed, has ascended them – and has earned the right to be taken seriously. Easy to forget how casually Button was dismissed by so many over the years, from Briatore’s “he’ll never make a World Champion”, to Villeneuve’s initial rubbishing of Jenson as a “weak team-mate”.
More anecdotally there’s the remembered aside from a senior member of the BAR-Honda management team: “Jenson, fit? I’m fitter than he is,” or a snub from a former colleague who sincerely believed that by 2005 JB would be racing British GTs.
My, my, some humble pie has been consumed these past 18 months, though to be fair to Button’s detractors, it did take him an awfully long time to find that winning groove: 10 seasons and 171 races ’til ‘World Champion’ could finally be written after ‘Jenson Button’.
We pause to reflect on Jenson’s odyssey and he mentions that, by coincidence, earlier that morning his engineers had shown him the data traces kept from 1999 when he first drove a McLaren as a prize for winning the McLaren/Autosport Young Driver gong a year earlier. It must seem a lifetime ago, something that happened to some other 19-year-old kid called Jenson Button?
“Yeah… it’s scary. I’m 30, and I feel that I’ve experienced quite a lot for a 30-year-old. It seems like a long time ago. A long, long time ago.”
He looks surprised, maybe even a tick irritated, at mention of the number of races until the title was secured (“… oh, was it…?”), but then continues with a measured reflection of the whats, whys and wherefores: “We all have different routes to winning the World Championship, or even fighting for the World Championship, but my route… a lot of the time I was in a car that wasn’t that quick. We had moments when we had a competitive car, but never the quickest. In ’04 and ’06, we thought we could challenge for the championship. But there was always one team that was superior to us. In ’04 Ferrari were one second quicker than anyone, so finishing third in the championship behind the two Ferraris was like winning the title.