Jenson Button remembers his first F1 win: ‘I never wanted those laps to end'


15 years ago, Jenson Button overcame the conditions in the only way he knew how to take his debut F1 win – he recalled the story to James Elson

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - AUGUST 06: Jenson Button of Great Britain and Honda Racing celebrates his first ever Formula One victory after winning the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix at the Hungaroring on August 6, 2006 in Budapest, Hunagary. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

A worthy reaction Button's first win

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Six and a half seasons. 113 races. Quite a few laps…

Jenson Button had to wait longer than most for his first grand prix win. And so did the Honda (i.e. Team Brackley) squad he was driving for. Years of blood, sweat, tears, being labelled a “playboy” by former boss Flavio Briatore, and having F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone advise others not to take him on – Button had been fighting against it all, coming close in 2004, but never quite grasping his ultimate goal.

One day in Hungary in 2006 though, it finally all came together in a masterful display of speed, quick thinking, cute strategy and a signature delicate touch in changeable conditions. It was the kind of race win that would become his signature in years to come.

Recalling the day with Motor Sport recently, Button described his final few laps as “a feeling I never wanted to end – it had been a hell of a challenge.”

The ’06 season had brought a pole and a podium early on, but not much after – why had the season yielded relatively little up to that point?

“I was thinking about this the other day and a lot of it was reliability,” Button says calling in from LA whilst on his seemingly non-stop Radford 62 promotional tour. “We really were struggling with it.

Button qualifying

Button showed pace in practice…


“And even in that race, that race weekend in Hungary, we had a failure on Saturday morning.

“The team had made a powerful engine – the numbers looked good,” he remembers. “It was wonderful – very drivable. The sound from the V8 was just insane, but it was the first year of the V8 and we hadn’t really got our heads around the reliability of it yet.”

Button had reason to believe that things would eventually come good at some point.

“It was a team that was coming up with great ideas – it was staggering” Jenson Button

“It was a team that was coming up with great ideas – it was staggering,” he says. “They were working on the flexi rear wing as well, as well as a front differential which was amazing under braking. You could hammer the brakes and never lock up. It was really fun to be part of a team like that that was developing so rapidly and taking the fight to the bigger teams like Ferrari and Renault.”

Button’s handful of decent finishes in early season were complemented by four retirements and a few races out of the points – not good enough for the Honda hierarchy. The lack of results meant a technical reshuffle was imposed – new senior technical director Shuhei Nakamoto’s appointment made design guru Geoff Willis’s role within the team vague, compounded by the fact the latter was instructed not to attend races. The writing was on the wall and the Englishman left by mid-season.

However, Jenson still credits the eventual success the team would have to the- hard yards he put in earlier in the season.

“It was that sad when Geoff left, because I had a lot of respect for him,” Button says. “He pushed the team really hard. When someone leaves mid-season, all of the hard work that was done at the start of the year is shown in the second part of the season, even if they’re not there – it was all down to Geoff.

Honda engine blow

…but. familiar engine failure meant a penalty – he would start 14th


“I loved how he would have a weekly weigh in on the parts of the cars to make sure that they weren’t heavier than they were supposed to be. I wish that I’d worked with him for more years in my career.”

As F1 rolled into Hungary, the timesheets told the story – the fourth for Button in qualifying showed he was competitive, but a familiar tune was playing at Honda: that blown power unit and the resulting ten-place grid penalty mired him towards the back of the field.

Come Sunday though, the heavens opened, and so did an opportunity for Button to get back to the front.

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“Lining up 14th in mixed conditions, you’re like: ‘Well, let’s see what happens!’,” he says. “Getting through Turn One is your first challenge.

“I had a really bad start – went backwards rather than forwards! But once we got through the first corner, it was just about getting into a rhythm.

“I knew the car was going to work well in those conditions, but I wasn’t quite sure it was going to be that good! It was real fun.”

Whilst Räikkönen converted pole into the lead, championship leader Fernando Alonso rocketed from 15th sixth at the end of lap one, whilst Michael Schumacher came from 12th to fourth. Button made up for his inauspicious to find himself up to 11th at the end of first tour.

Jenson soon started making his way through the field, overtaking at almost one car a lap. Whilst his progress might not have been as meteoric as Schumacher’s and Alonso’s, the Honda driver was smoothly and methodically climbing the field in the style he’s famous for.

Button Coulthard

Button made a solid start, and was soon scything through the field

Grand Prix Photo

“Obviously the Michelin tyres that we were using were stronger in the wet conditions than the Bridgestones on the Ferraris,” Button comments on some of his wet weather advantage.

“It definitely made it easier that it was wet, as you can take advantage of mistakes, whilst you’re also always searching for grip – and you can play strategy.”

Button and his team would bring the race to them though well considered decisions, but first Button had to negotiate a seven-time world champion in the form of Schumacher.

“When came out of the move on Schumacher, I was just laughing in my helmet” Button

After having gradually made his way up the field, Button was now fifth behind the Ferrari. It was a challenge he relished, and still remembers fondly.

“It always has to be Schumacher,” he says when asked to pick his best favourite overtake that day. “When I watched Formula 1 in the early 90s, to see him as a young kid, fighting as the best in the world – then, six or seven years later – I’m racing him!

“At my first ever grand prix, I drove out of the pits and I was behind Michael. It just blew me away. Any time I could go wheel to wheel with him, it made my race. It was so special to race with someone of his calibre, and he was the one I looked up to in terms of getting the best out of myself.”

Button Schumacher

Button chooses his Schumacher move as his favourite form that race


Button managed to put all thoughts of adulation out of his head though as got alongside Schumacher down the start-finish straight at the start of lap six, taking the inside line into the first turn. It required full commitment, a lot of nerve, and a deft touch to make sure the two didn’t tangle on a deceptive surface.

“The move on Michael into Turn One, where there were millimetres between his front wing and my rear tyre, that for me was my move of the race. I had to get that move done,” he says.

“And when came out of the corner, I was just laughing in my helmet. It was such a special moment for me and one I’ll never forget.”

Once Button was ahead of Schumacher and up to fourth, it became clear the race was a showdown between the two McLarens of Räikkönen and Pedro De La Rosa, as well as Alonso and Button.

Come lap 15 and the rain started to come down more heavily. Several drivers came in for new tyres, including Button, but Alonso stayed out and inherited the lead.

Alonso Hungary

Alonso lead for a significant portion until a wheel nut failure hit

Getty Images

“With a race like this, you haven’t really got a plan,” Button’s race engineer Andrew Shovlin said in a Sky interview last year. “It’s just about making sure you’re on the right tyres at the right time and have got the fuel to cover the conditions.”

“We were very good at learning from what we’ve done in the past, whether it was good or bad,” Button says, describing his relationship with Shovlin and the team’s overall approach to strategy. “We talked a lot about what we’re doing throughout the race.”

A flexible approach to strategy really did come into play when net leader Räikkönen rear-ended Tonio Liuzzi’s Toro Rosso on lap 25, ending their respective races and bringing out the safety car.

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Button and his team had opted to take on generous helping of 60kg of fuel at his first stop, hoping conditions would gradually come to them on inters, picking up places as they went. The removal of the Finn up the road, plus De La Rosa pitting again, moved Button up to second behind Alonso.

Once the safety car peeled in, Button found three backmarkers in between himself and the Spaniard, meaning the latter could extend his margin by 6sec after one lap.

From thereon in though, on a drying track, the Honda gradually caught the Renault over the next 15 laps, the gap down to under a second by lap 46. After several laps buzzing all over the back of the Renault, Button dived into the pits to take on more fuel, but stuck with his heavily worn inters – the team opted to give him just enough in the tank to get him through to the expected dry section of the race.

The next decision was when to gamble on track conditions first – and have the faith that the track would be safe for slicks.

Alonso cracked first, pitting for slicks on lap 51 – but it would all be academic. It took two turns of the circuit for a right rear wheel nut to work itself loose, and pitch a hapless double champion into the tyre barriers.

2006 Hungarian GP Jenson Button

Taking that long-awaited first win


The battle was over and Button, after all his years of toil, suddenly found himself in the lead with a clear run to the flag.

“Fernando’s issue made life a lot simpler for us,” he says. “Do I wish they didn’t have a failure? Probably not, because it was easy from there on – we had a 35sec lead, which was mega!

“Most of the race we’d been chasing him down – it was a hell of a challenge.”

The almost innumerable Honda breakdowns that year loomed over the Brit as he homed in on his first win, but otherwise it had all suddenly turned into a leisurely Sunday drive for the Frome Flyer.

“Leading by that amount – I really didn’t want it to end” Button

“With Honda at that time, you were worried about certain things failing,” Button remembers. “But they were also the most enjoyable few laps of my life.

“Leading by that amount, knowing you can cruise and enjoy the moment – I really didn’t want it to end.”

But then the surrealness of the situation kicked in: “You cross the finish line, you’ve won. The adrenaline is at its highest after beating everyone, and then it’s like ‘Oh, that’s it!’ It’s kind of weird.

“You never know how you’re going to feel after winning your first race or winning the world championship, you don’t plan for that.”

Jenson trophy

Button says the emotion coursed through all team members


Pure spontaneity did the trick – the image of Button’s eyes almost popping out of his famous helmet design has now become iconic, and the ’09 champ says it was as much as his feeling for the team as his own elation at breaking his duck.

“We just achieved so much together – I’ve never seen so many grown men cry before,” he remembers with clear fondness. “The Japanese are so passionate too but all the all the team based in the UK had so much emotion also after having been through so much together.”

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Button didn’t even get to celebrate much with his team, having long ago agreed to attend a sponsor event in China, and took a flight not long after the race. He left his father to lead the party, wearing Button’s Honda F1 team cap.

After fulfilling his commitment, Jenson was then asked if wanted to celebrate Tokyo style. “The team said ‘Would you be cool with going to Japan?’” he recalls. “I said ‘100%.’ We went to Honda’s Research and development office – which is basically a 1000 metre-long office.

“I then walked through the corridor in the middle in the open office, and everyone lined the walkway. It took me 20 minutes to walk down it – high fiving everybody!”

Honda carried that moment with it for the rest of the season. Including the Hungarian GP, Button scored more points than anyone over the remaining six races of the season.

Button podium

Button found himself on heavy-duty high-fiving celebratory tour in Japan after the win


His win at Canada 2011 is often cited as his greatest, but Button refutes this. Where does he rate Budapest ’06?

“Apart from my dominance at Spa 2012, wins in intermediate conditions always meant more to me,” he comments. “Because it wasn’t just about pure speed, it was about thinking on your feet, and making the right calls – you don’t get lucky that many times in a row.

“It really meant a lot that I could use my brain to win races rather than just on natural ability that was given to me – and Hungary was one of those.”