Jenson Button: True grid

At 20, he burst into Formula One. By 23, it seemed his talent had overtaken him and he was a more promising playboy than racing driver. But now, at 24, he has forced his way back into contention. Today he may at last mount the podium of British sporting heroes at the British Grand Prix
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Today Silverstone plays host to the British Grand Prix. Formula One, like any other sport, feeds off national heroes. Over the past 50 years, Britain has had more than its fair share: Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, the list is long and distinguished. The past few years, however, have been a barren period. Following the success of Damon Hill, a fortuitous champion of relatively modest skill, Britain has had, in David Coulthard, only one serious top-line contender in an era that has been dominated - like never before in the history of the sport - by one extraordinary talent, Michael Schumacher. As a consequence, Formula One has been enormously popular in Germany, while the following in this country has visibly diminished. Now, though, it looks as if Britain may have found a new hero.

Today Silverstone plays host to the British Grand Prix. Formula One, like any other sport, feeds off national heroes. Over the past 50 years, Britain has had more than its fair share: Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, the list is long and distinguished. The past few years, however, have been a barren period. Following the success of Damon Hill, a fortuitous champion of relatively modest skill, Britain has had, in David Coulthard, only one serious top-line contender in an era that has been dominated - like never before in the history of the sport - by one extraordinary talent, Michael Schumacher. As a consequence, Formula One has been enormously popular in Germany, while the following in this country has visibly diminished. Now, though, it looks as if Britain may have found a new hero.

Jenson Button is hardly a new kid on the block. Although still only 24, he is already in his fifth season of Formula One. He arrived in 2000 at the tender age of 20 to a fanfare of trumpets and, with Williams, one of the best seats on the grid. There he performed creditably, without setting the world alight, to be replaced at the end of the season by Juan Pablo Montoya. He then spent two years at Renault, a team on the rise, performed without distinction and again found himself out of a job. Button, it seemed, was one of those drivers who, a bit like Coulthard, had got lucky young, driven for two top teams, but just couldn't deliver. The fact that he took so swiftly to the playboy lifestyle did not help his cause either and led to much muttering in the paddock. Many concluded that he had the wrong priorities. When he signed for BAR, a team that, like Button, had failed to match the hype, it seemed that his career might already be in decline.

The judgement was premature. Last season, to the surprise of many, he comprehensively out-performed his senior team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, a former world champion. He had turned the corner. This season his performances have been a revelation. In a year dominated by Schumacher and Ferrari, he has scored six podium finishes, the first of his career, and now lies third in the world championship. Button, at the age of 24, has been reborn. Former detractors such as Bernie Ecclestone and Jackie Stewart have been forced to eat their unkind words.

In the 1980s, Nigel Mansell enjoyed huge national support: millions identified with his bulldog spirit, enormous courage, and never-say-die spirit. If not the best driver of his generation - it was the era of Ayrton Senna, after all - he was certainly its most exciting. Subsequently Damon Hill enjoyed the affection of fans, but nothing like the same enthusiasm. David Coulthard has commanded neither the support nor affection of fans, his dry manner and Scottish credentials seemingly counting against him. It is not difficult, however, to imagine Button, if he can sustain the improvement in his performance evident so far this season, becoming an extremely popular figure.

His name - like that of Stirling Moss in a bygone era - suggests a certain heroic quality. He has telegenic looks and, notwithstanding his premature embrace of the playboy lifestyle, he seems to possess a down-to-earth quality that is both appealing and disarming. Like Mansell, moreover, who enjoyed an extraordinary rapport with his British fans, Button also displays a patriotic touch, having similarly sported the Union Jack on his helmet, replaced this weekend by the St George's flag. The decisive factor, though, will be how he performs on the track. Apart from Schumacher, who is in a class of his own, Button is one of a group of drivers with a strong claim to be the next best and, one day, potentially the next champion.

In Formula One, as in no other sport, the machine rather than the driver is decisive, and in this respect too, luck may be on Button's side. His team, BAR, are on the rise and their engine-supplier, Honda, is beginning to show the same kind of form and commitment that took it to the very pinnacle of the sport in the 1980s. For the last quarter-century, two teams - Williams and McLaren - have dominated Formula One, to be eclipsed only recently by Ferrari. Now they both find themselves, by their own high standards, in the doldrums. There are reasons to believe that their problems may be rather deeper than previously thought. Patrick Head, for long the technical guru at Williams, has recently stepped aside, while there are strong rumours that Ron Dennis, the architect of McLaren's success, will retire within the next two years. We could be witnessing Formula One's equivalent of the Changing of the Guard.

These changes, important as they may be, however, are overshadowed by a pervasive sense of crisis that now engulfs the sport. Should Button become the new Mansell, it is difficult to imagine the British Grand Prix once more witnessing the kind of almost hysterical scenes that greeted "Our Nige's" victories at Silverstone over a decade ago. Mansell, Prost and Senna did battle on the track, the winner was always in doubt, and overtaking was an intrinsic part of the spectacle: it seems like a golden age lost in the mists of time. Now the sport has become unbearably monotonous, overtaking impossible and the result entirely predictable. It is tragic that the greatest talent that the sport has ever seen - Michael Schumacher - should be sullied by the growing technical and commercial crisis facing Formula One.

The headlines that have acted as the backdrop to today's race have only secondarily been about the race itself. Even Button's emergence has been eclipsed by the now annual row over the future of Silverstone as the home of the British Grand Prix. It is, needless to say, a struggle over money - who should pay for the reconstruction of a patently inadequate facility - and, in particular, the avarice of one man, Bernie Ecclestone. If he, more than any other, made Formula One into the global sport it is today, it is his actions or, more accurately, his greed that is now undermining the sport. Formula One may have acquired new venues on new continents, but as a spectacle it is a pale shadow of what it once was, and support for it in its traditional European heartland is on the wane.

There is, of course, little that Jenson Button can do about this. For the punters, the drivers matter more than anything else, even the hallowed name of Ferrari. Without them, there is no emotion, no passion, a business not a sport. Yet in reality the drivers count for far less than the designers or the team bosses: it takes a genius like Schumacher to defy these iron laws of contemporary Formula One.

Even the drivers, though, are now finding it difficult to command the headlines: instead the latter are being hogged by arguments over money, venues and the boring character of the races. It is a bit like the recent European football championships being dominated by the remuneration of players, the size of the goalposts and the desirability of penalty shoot-outs. Nothing more eloquently expresses the present crisis of Formula One.

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