Jenson Button: ‘My respect for Frank Williams’

F1

He was given his first F1 race seat by Frank Williams, now Jenson Button looks back on his time spent at the Williams-BMW team and how it helped him on his way in the sport

Jenson Button, 2000 Japanese GP

Button's F1 career started at Williams-BMW

Clive Mason /Allsport

It’s hard to believe 20 years have passed since 20-year-old Jenson Button made his Formula 1 debut for Williams, in just his third season of car racing.

As Frank and Claire Williams step away from the sport that gave them so much, the 2009 world champion reflects on what the man who has been an F1 team owner since 1969 gave back – specifically to a sunny lad from Somerset with a raw talent but much to learn at the start of the new millennium.

“Frank has given so many of us an opportunity in F1,” said Button when we caught up with him last week. “I really enjoyed working with him. He was very relaxed with me, basically because I was so inexperienced.” His first was certainly a better season than his second, when he switched to Benetton, an experience that almost ended his career before it had really got going.

Button stunned in Formula Ford in his maiden season out of karts, showed further promise in Formula 3 and found himself already on the F1 radar at the end of 1999. After a test with Alain Prost’s team, the four-time champion recommended the kid to Frank Williams, who was looking for a driver in the wake of Alex Zanardi’s disappointing F1 return. Williams was beginning a partnership with BMW and with the accomplished Ralf Schumacher in the other car and limited expectations in the first year of a new engine supply, the team could afford to take a risk on a rookie.

“Frank said ‘I want to see you progressing, I want to see you making steps,’” said Button of a maiden season in which he scored half of Schumacher’s points, but outqualified the German at Spa and Suzuka. “For example, at Hockenheim, on the pit entry I was half a second slower than Ralf and Frank told me I needed to push the boundaries. So, I did. [In practice] I went off, broke my front wing and walked back to the pits.”

Jenson Button, 2000 German GP

Button walks away after crashing during practice for the German GP

Mark Thompson/ALLSPORT

The moment was inevitably captured on TV and gave a snap-shot of the warmth Frank had for his young charge, who looked nervous and sheepish as he walked back to the garage – only to be welcomed with a big smile from the boss. “It was very embarrassing,” Jenson recalled. “Patrick [Head] was shouting at me: ‘Jenson! How could you do this in the pit lane entrance!’ Frank said, ‘No Patrick, I told him to push. It happened but it was the right thing. This is what learning’s all about.’”

But despite the nuggets of potential, Button failed to keep his drive for 2001. Juan Pablo Montoya, the explosive Colombian contracted to Williams but kept on a long leash in Indycars, was now free to return. Button pitched up at Benetton for the Italian clothing company’s final season in F1, to the team that was now owned by Renault.

The 2001 season was a disaster for him as he struggled to get to grips with the troubled B201. New team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella didn’t exactly fly either; the Italian only scored eight points. But Jenson managed just two in a team that didn’t really seem to want him.

“I really feel for Frank because F1 is his life”

“Yeah, I didn’t feel very welcome in the team when I walked in,” he says. “When I arrived at Williams I did, when I arrived at BAR [in 2003] I really did and when I moved to McLaren [as world champion in 2010], it was such a lovely atmosphere and was really welcoming. Benetton was the only time when I never felt welcome. I don’t know why. It felt very strange, very alien to me for a British driver with a British-based team. The car was a dog, it really was in 2001, but my team-mate was quicker than me. He could really drive it beyond its means, and fair play to him: Giancarlo in a bad car was the king. Nobody could beat him in that car.

“I struggled coming from a Williams that was very easy to drive, very easy to set up. Suddenly I found myself in a position where I just couldn’t work with this car. A lot of it was from my driving style because I would brake earlier, carry speed through a corner and it just didn’t work with the way the Benetton was set up – because it was set up around Giancarlo, and also because of the way the power unit was.”

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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