Button and Alonso at McLaren


McLaren’s decision to retain Jenson Button alongside its new signing Fernando Alonso for 2015 brings a driver pairing that almost happened six years earlier elsewhere. Back in 2008 Honda was chasing Alonso very hard for the following year and, had it succeeded, the plan was to keep Button and let Rubens Barrichello go.

How it might have turned out we can never know – especially as Honda suddenly pulled out of F1 at the end of ’08 and the team re-emerged after a management buy-out as the title-winning Brawn entity (which in turn became the current Mercedes team). Would a contracted Alonso have accepted a pay cut the way Button did in order to remain with the team – or would he have cashed in his chips and gone elsewhere? Alonso had more options at the time than did Button.

At the time that Honda’s Nick Fry was pursuing Alonso’s services for 2009 I wrote a column about the challenges this would present for Jenson. I wrote that Button’s talent was easily equal to the challenge but the inconsistency, the way he struggled to adapt if the car wasn’t just as he needs it, was not. In terms of who can best improvise lap time from an imbalanced car Alonso remains supreme – and that was certainly very evident this year with the mediocre 2014 Ferrari F14T.

Among those least able to bully a front end that’s not co-operating yet still somehow maintain good momentum, or shrug aside a nervous rear end under braking and corner entry, is Button. If next year’s McLaren MP4-30 has either of those traits Jenson will probably be in a significant amount of bother and Alonso could make him look mediocre, just as he made Kimi Rӓikkӧnen look in 2014.

If, on the other hand, the car is good things could get very interesting indeed. Button’s game is built upon technical perfection. Quoting that 2008 column, ‘Jenson’s style is textbook perfect: wonderfully smooth, millimetre precise, beautifully fluid lines and exquisite throttle control… the questions only begin arising when you move away from this ideal. There are times when the technically perfect driving style is not the most appropriate… there are an almost infinite number of factors trying to take the car away from technical perfection.”

Button cajoles a car, Alonso bullies it. If the front end doesn’t want to respond, Alonso will use the brakes to transfer the weight suddenly, to force a response and then dance through the consequences of that. Button by contrast is lost, waiting for the tyres to respond as the lap time leaks away, much the way Rӓikkӧnen is. Oversteer is not a problem – and one of Button’s greatest victories came in Spain ’09 when he drove through the rear tyre degradation by taking the car by the scruff of the neck and beating Barrichello despite having an inferior strategy forced upon him. But an edgy, unpredictable rear end that begins misbehaving under braking is something guaranteed to throw Button off his game – even after all these years.

Back in ’09 Button spoke of how he struggles to adapt to undesirable traits in a car, making the contrast with his then team-mate Barrichello: “When the car has a rear imbalance, Rubens has a way of just putting on a load of lock to induce a sort of false understeer that balances out the oversteer. But when I try to do that I lose all feel of the car.” The general trend at Honda and Brawn was that Button was faster when the car was balanced, with Barrichello ahead when it wasn’t. The 2009 Brawn was a beautifully balanced car and Button won six races to Barrichello’s two. But there’s Barrichello and then there’s Alonso…

The central core of Alonso’s strength is the relentlessness of his performance lap after pummelling lap. But if the car is perfectly balanced there are sure to be times when Button’s more technically perfect flowing style can squeeze more from the car and tyres than Alonso’s more physical punchy inputs. His peaks in a great car may actually be higher than Alonso’s – not the common perception, but if the MP4-30 is well balanced, that perception will change. But Button’s personal performance curve will always have more dips and crests than Alonso’s whose style is so much more adaptable.

At the race following the publication of that 2008 column I walked into the Honda motorhome and immediately met the eyes of Jenson’s dad, John. ‘Uh-oh,’ I thought, ‘here goes. He’s not going to have liked what I said in there.’ But instead he said something like, “I read your column and I thought it was very interesting. It actually said some things that I think but could not have said to him. So I kept leaving the magazine lying around, open on that page, hoping he’d read it. After a while he mentioned it. I said, ‘Oh, what did you think of it?’ and Jenson said, ‘He’s right!’ And I thought, ‘thank gawd for that.’”

Jenson of course went on to win the world championship the very next year and Alonso remained at Renault for a further season before beginning his Ferrari adventure – joining Maranello at the same time that Button made the move to Woking.

Back in 2008 I was pondering that Button needed to analyse and work on his weaknesses if he was to measure up to Alonso. But over time he’s done something slightly different to that; he’s enhanced and augmented his strengths and tried to work around the weaknesses. “I know that my way of driving is the best if the car is right,” said Button at McLaren’s launch two years ago. “So we need to work on making the car right.”

The Button of today has the confidence of a world champion, someone who’s done it, in the way he didn’t back in 2008 and Alonso did. Jenson was always confident in his ability but believing you can do it is one thing, knowing you’ve already done it before is something more than that. He’s supremely confident to his core, very self-aware of both his strengths and weaknesses and knows that he can beat anyone on his day. His game is all about trying to create the circumstances that allows those days to come more often.

He’s had the experience of being alongside Lewis Hamilton for three years and actually out-scored him over that time. Although not as outright quick on average, he was way closer than many imagined he’d be (within 0.15sec) – and there were days, several of them, when he was just plain better. And in any races featuring changeable wet/dry conditions, he simply out-drove Hamilton – defeated him straight in such circumstances at both China 2010 and Brazil 2012. In such conditions, grip changing from corner to corner, where it’s all about fingertip feel, Button remains the best in the world – by a significant margin.

Button has no reason to fear Alonso and he is going to be incredibly motivated to beat him, in a way that he perhaps needs after two seasons in an uncompetitive car against team-mates he’s been able to comfortably handle. But he must hope against hope that McLaren delivers a well-balanced and effective car unlike the team’s aerodynamically flawed creations of the past two seasons. If the car is bad, Alonso will almost certainly annihilate Button. But if it’s good, Fernando faces his biggest in-team challenge since Hamilton in 2007 and it will be no walkover.


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