At times, team boss Flavio Briatore didn’t even try to hide his contempt for Button and suggested the lad had let the F1 lifestyle go to his head. Button now accepts he needed to pull his socks up, but the experience was valuable.
“It was a really tough year and Flavio was tough with me, but to be fair I also learnt a lot working with him and [technical director] Mike Gascoyne. It definitely made me a stronger person and you know, I might not have gone on to achieve what I did without them, in a way. It definitely changed my views and I did start working harder.”
We spoke just a couple of days before the Italian GP, and Button’s insight into driver psychology now takes on a greater resonance following the shock result. “There are drivers on the grid at the moment that probably need to go through that same process,” he said. “Pierre Gasly is probably another one where his head wasn’t in it, bad results really hurt him mentally and he didn’t perform at Red Bull. Now at AlphaTauri he is kicking arse, doing a fantastic job. It’s very strange in racing – people don’t realise it’s not so much a physical sport, rather more a mental one. Your head has got to be in the right place.”
As for Williams, Frank always left the door open to Button, despite dropping him at the end of 2000. But that door was slammed shut not once, but twice – the second time in awkward circumstances.
The first was in 2004, by which time Button was flying high with BAR during a season in which he’d finish third in the world championship behind Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. But still the prospect of a BMW-powered Williams seemed the stronger bet against Ferrari’s dominance and he agreed a deal to return for 2005. But BAR boss David Richards certainly did not agree, claimed Button as his own and won the case at the Contract Recognition Board.
The following year, Button now looked all set to join Williams for 2006 – only to see the team split with BMW, which had chosen to buy Sauber and go it alone. As BAR was morphing into the works Honda team, Williams was about to become an ‘indie’ with customer Cosworth engines – and Jenson suddenly had a change of heart. But it cost him. Frank claimed an estimated £18 million in compensation as Button once again stayed put. Ouch. Remarkably, Jenson doesn’t hold a grudge, which says much for their friendship.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Frank, what he’s achieved and how he treated me in 2000,” he said. “We obviously had a couple of moments in 2005 with the whole ‘I want to sign for you, no I don’t want to sign for you, you were a works team but you’re certainly not a works team now’ thing. But still, he’s a very good friend.
“It’s a shame to see the family walking away from the sport. I didn’t really work with Claire, she was very young when I was at Williams” – although at 24 she was older than Button at the time – “but I really feel for Frank because F1 is his life and I know that he spends a lot of time at the factory, so I don’t really know how that’s going to affect him.”
It’s a concern shared by many. Williams remains in F1, but without Frank, not really