Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Button: 10th Champion at the 10th Attempt

About the first piece I ever wrote on the subject of motorsport, for the now long-defunct Parc Ferme Magazine, was an article asking whether the young Jenson Button had been catapulted into Formula 1 before he was really ready, and if in the long term, his early stardom might do more harm than good for his career.

It was a long time ago, now that I think about it. I remember having a rather long debate about what I had written with a guest at the launch party for a dotcom start-up I had become involved in - so yes, for all that it doesn't feel that way to me, Jenson Button's been around in F1 long enough that his entry into the sport coincided with the dotcom boom.

Ten years later, Button had become the tenth British driver to win the Formula One World Championship (unlike the aforementioned dotcom, which went the way of all flesh about a year and a half on from the launch party). Whether that was far more than I ever thought he would achieve, or whether he took far longer to nail the title than he might have done, I can't quite make my mind up. So did history prove me wrong when I said he came into the sport too early? Or did my younger self have a point?

Truth be told, Button's first season in Formula 1, at Williams, went rather well, all told. Team mate Ralf Schumacher scored more points, but had the advantage of being in his fourth season in the sport. Button, who had just a single season of F3 to his name before he got the call from Sir Frank, was usually slightly shadowed by the younger Schumacher, but what was interesting were the flashes of exceptional pace that he showed. The third place on the grid at Spa, or his third row start at Suzuka, a circuit he had never been to before in his life (and this, remember, some years before advanced simulation tools would make life rather easier for newcomers).

Then it all went wrong. Jenson got the drive at Williams, at least in part, because the team had precipitously parted with Alex Zanardi, had Ralf Schumacher on long-term contract, and Juan Montoya lined up to join them in a year's time. In short, they needed a driver for one year and one year only - and they hired the relatively unknown Button for because none of the established stars would be interested in such a deal. The next year, he wound up with Benetton, which was in the process of being taken over by Renault, and the 2001 Benetton was possibly the worst machine ever to have come out of the Enstone factory.

And Button floundered. Given a good, quick car, he showed well in 2000, but it seemed he simply lacked the experience to know where to begin with the desperately underpowered 2001 Benetton, which was running the earliest iteration of Renault's extreme-wide-angle V10. In consequence, he was completely outpaced by team mate Giancarlo Fisichella, and his head appeared to go down. His hurried elevation through the junior ranks just hadn't equipped him to deal with a difficult and uncompetitive car.

His relationship with team principal, Flavio Briatore, appeared to be holed below the waterline, though it always struck me that there's something a tad absurd about Briatore writing anyone off as a 'playboy'. Physician heal thyself... He fared much better in 2002, with a now much more competitive Renault (running, for the first time, as a 'Renault' rather than a 'Benetton', though the sale had actually taken place some years earlier) but never quite matched new team mate Jarno Trulli, and when it became clear that the team really wanted to get their impressive young test driver, Fernando Alonso, into one of their cars in 2003, it was Button whose contract was up, and for a time, it seemed if Button, who had arrived in F1 with a bang in 2000, would be leaving with a whimper just three years later.

He was saved by Dave Richards, who had taken the helm at BAR. Bernie Ecclestone had apparently advised against hiring the Briton to partner Jacques Villeneuve but Richards saw things differently and threw Button, still only 23 years old, a career lifeline. Older, and perhaps wiser, than he was when he went to Renault, he seized it with both hands. He was at least as quick, perhaps actually a shade quicker, than his former World Champion team mate, and when the team took on Takuma Sato in deference to engine-supplier Honda, who wanted a quick Japanese driver in one of the cars, it was Villeneuve, rather than Button, who was shown the exit door.

From there on in, Button's fortunes were tied to those of BAR/Honda. In 2004, when Mclaren and Williams stumbled, BAR came good, and Button led the team to second in the constructor's championship, taking ten podium finishes along the way, establishing himself as the clear team leader. 2005 didn't go so well for the team, with a poor early season and exclusion from two Grands Prix for an irregularity in their fuel tank but Button did no harm to his own reputation, scoring two podiums and picking up all but one of the 38 points BAR scored that year. The following year, the team again started slow, with the car proving almost embarassingly off the pace for much of the first part of the season. In a peculiar premonition of what was to come, at Silverstone Honda and Button were so hopeless that the British press all but gave up on Button and switched their focus to a young chap called Hamilton who was doing amazing things with a GP2 car in the support race. In the second half of the year, though, he finally broke his duck and won his first Grand Prix, at his scored more points than either eventual World Champion Fernando Alonso, or runner-up Michael Schumacher. In the process, he established his superiority over a new team mate with rather more of a reputation than Sato, in the form of Ferrari refugee Rubens Barrichello.

With Honda going into their second year as a full works team, with Button having gotten
the monkey off his back in winning his first Grand Prix, it seemed that 2007 might be his year. Instead it was the start of a precipitous decline. Honda's second F1 car was just possibly the most disappointing racing car to appear on the F1 grid this decade. Outpaced by just about every other team on the grid, including Super Aguri, which was essentially nothing more than a bunch of ex-Arrows personnel running the previous year's Honda - designed for Michelin tyres, on Bridgestones, and with drivers passed over by the works operation. In '07, Button actually had some moments of real inspiration, most notably, somehow dragging the car into the top 5 in the rain in China, but as the British press were rather more excited by a young hopeful parachuted straight into Mclaren, it seemed like he had been written off by many as a might-have been.

When Honda produced another clunker in 2008, it seemed Button's will to get the best out of it finally went out of the window. For the first time in the three seasons they had been paired together, it was Barrichello who usually got more out of the hopeless RA108. Then came the news that the Japanese carmaker were pulling the plug, and with almost everyone else having their drivers in place for 2009, it seemed that Jenson Button's F1 career was effectively over. There was the outside possibility of a drive with Red Bull 'B Team' Toro Rosso, but that aside, it looked like the Somerset man was looking at a future in sportscars. With the global economy having tanked, it seemed unlikely that anyone had the resources required to do anything with the remains of Honda, who, after all, hadn't done anything in the previous couple of years to suggest that their unfinished 2009 car would be a particularly competitive proposition.

If the Button story had ended there, what would we have made of him? A talented driver, smooth in the vein of Alain Prost, easy on his equipment, who had a knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who perhaps lacked the killer instinct necessary to be a World Champion. What might he have done at Williams alongside Montoya in the early part of the decade? If Flavio had kept him on instead of Trulli, how might he have fared against Alonso as the Spaniard went for his two titles in 2005 and 2006? Given the chance, we might have wondered, would he have seized it with both hands, or would he have let it slip through his fingers?

Against all expectations, though, 2009 gave us the chance to find out. The Brawn BGP001 was the best racing car Honda never made. Not dominant in the way that the 2002 Ferrari or the 1988 Mclaren was, but on balance, probably the best car on the grid over the course of the season - though a case could be made for Ross Brawn's old nemesis Adrian Newey's Red Bull RB5. And Button hit the ground running like a man who had been leading Grands Prix from the front for his whole life - winning six of the first seven races. It seemed he was taking up where the last man to partner Barrichello in a team run by Brawn left off...

Of course, things were never quite the same after Turkey. Button hasn't won a race since, and some have suggested it was down to nerves, or a loss of form. Well, perhaps, in part. More likely, it was simply a combination of the Brawn's loss of competitiveness relative to Red Bull and Mclaren in particular, and the fact that Button could afford to play the percentage game, nursing a huge lead in the drivers table, while his rivals were forced to go for broke. A few small but costly errors in qualifying aside, he didn't make any real mistakes, and to some extent his relatively paltry points total subsequent to Turkey was down to his inability to get the best out of the tyres over a single qualifying lap and the sheer difficulty of overtaking in a modern F1 car, rather than any greater failing.

There have been mutterings in some quarters that Button somehow isn't a worthy champion, but to my mind that's nonsense. Of the drivers who found themselves at the wheel of potentially race-winning cars, he did a better job over the season than anyone else. And that is what you need to do to be a World Champion. Occasionally, a driver overcomes the odds to win the title in a car not truly worthy of the prize - Alonso in 2006, Schumacher in 1994 and 1995, and Prost in 1986, are, for me, examples of years where the best driver triumphed over a better car. But that's rare and while I'm not sure Button is in quite the same league as Alonso or Hamilton, who for me are still the outstanding talents in the sport right now, that is true of many who have become World Champion down the years. After all, was Barrichello really any closer to him on pace most weekends than he was to Schumacher, back in their days together at Ferrari?

Finally, though, what is the answer to the question I asked at the beginning? Did Button come into the sport too early? Might he have been World Champion many times over by now had his career been better managed? Maybe. But maybe not. Undoubtedly, his lack of experience led him to sully his reputation considerably at Benetton/Renault, and maybe had he spent a couple more years in F3 or F3000, he would have been better equipped to deal with the awful 2001 Benetton. But on the other hand, who's to say that he would ever have gotten his break into the sport in the first place? An F3000 title is no guarantee that you immediately will be picked up by one of the F1 teams - Ask Bjorn Wirdheim, Jorg Muller or Bruno Junquiera. Had Button had the luxury of having his career carefully planned in the way that, say, Lewis Hamilton's was, he might not have chosen to debut as early as 2000. But the vast majority of drivers just have to seize what opportunities come their way. And Button did that in 2000 when he signed for Williams, just as he did this year when he became the 10th Briton to join the pantheon of World Champions.

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4:13 AM  

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