Motor racing: Prolific push of Button

Comparisons with Senna abound for Britain's most promising young racing driver.
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The Independent Online
Jenson Button may be more nervous sitting at a table at Grosvenor House, in London, this evening, awaiting the outcome of the McLaren Autosport Young Driver Award, than he has been while racing all season in one of the sport's most cut-and-thrust categories. But frankly, it's unlikely. Nerves do not appear to play an obtrusive role in the make-up of an 18- year-old sensation from Bath who, less than a year ago, was known only to the cognoscenti of the kart world.

A novice in car racing at the beginning of the season, he achieved dramatic success in the champion-honing Formula Ford junior series. So dramatic, in fact, that it has already put his name firmly in the minds of luminaries in Formula One.

Last month Button turned up at the Magny-Cours track in central France to test for the Promatecme Formula Three team. He'd never seen the place or the team before, and his mileage in such cars was limited, but by the end of the day the proprietor, Serge Saulnier, rushed to phone his friend, Alain Prost. In recounting what he had witnessed that day Saulnier used the word "shocked" - rather than merely surprised - to describe his feelings. Prost, already running a former kart hotshoe, Jarno Trulli, reportedly took great interest.

Button is a young guy in a big hurry. He may look like a fresh-faced kid, but he is already wise beyond his years. That's what comes of racing karts since he was nine. Back then he rewarded his father John's generosity in buying him a 50mph Cadet class kart by winning a club championship and becoming British Super Prix Champion. A year later he was runner- up in the British championship; a year later still he dominated the series by winning all six races. To date he is the only person who can claim to have won all 34 Cadet races in which he competed.

He won the British Junior TKM and Open Championships in 1992, as Nigel Mansell was running rampant in F1, and is the only Cadet graduate to achieve the feat.

The winning continued when he switched to the even tougher Italian tracks in 1994. At 15 he became the youngest ever vice-champion in the Formula A World Championship; by 1997 he was European Champion in Super A. That year he was contesting the lead in the final of the Japanese World Cup at Suzuka, in Japan, when his chain broke.

Such pedigree does not necessarily transfer readily into the car world, yet Button made the step seamlessly this season, winning the first three races and only losing the fourth on a technicality.

Early on he outlined his feelings. "I thought I would do OK speed-wise, but I hadn't raced against many of the drivers and I wasn't sure what the other teams would be up to. I was sure I had a very good chance of being up the front, but a lot of people told me there was no way I'd win in my first year of Formula Ford. I've proved them wrong so far."

He would continue to do so, establishing himself from the start as the man to beat despite his lack of experience. Speed is one thing, but it's no good if you can't pass people. Button hasn't struggled here, either. "I'm sure you can learn it, and karting is very helpful to that aspect, especially in England where you have three heats and start one at the front, one in the middle and one at the back, so that you have to fight your way through. You learn that all through karting, but obviously you've got to have the head for it. It's the same with the speed, I'm sure you need it in your head."

Little things showcase a driver's intelligence and confidence. At the opening race at Silverstone he got irked by others trying to follow him on his fast lap, and at one stage pulled into the pits and deliberately waited until the closing minutes before going out for a quick time. "It's quite nice when you see people slowing down so they can sit behind you," he said, "but it gets a bit annoying, especially when they do it purposely so on your flying lap they slow you down, and then on the next one they get behind you and try to do a fast lap."

So he did 10 laps, and then he waited. The Haywood Racing team manager Jim Warren was impressed. "Three-thousandths separated Jenson and his team-mate and he came in to ask how far away he was. He let the tyres cool a little, then calmly said: 'I'd best go out and do something about it.' Two laps later he had taken pole."

Button went on to claim his first Formula Ford victory that day. "I was having big problems with the others, so I came in and told the team it was stupid out there, there was no point staying out," he explained, but he sounds almost surprised that such an indication of maturity should merit any interest. "A lot of it has come from karting. You learn so much there."

Button visited the Spanish Grand Prix in May, putting his name and face about. He filtered the sound advice from the hyperbole, storing the good stuff for the future. He was polite, attentive, but not overawed. His eyes held a message: This is where I want to be; this is where I believe I can be. When he got home the winning continued, and in October he wrapped up the British title at his first attempt. His team-mate Derek Hayes, another bright prospect, pipped him to the European Championship, but Button bounced back by winning the World Championship of Formula Ford, the Festival at Brands Hatch.

It's been the sort of season that Ayrton Senna enjoyed in 1981, which is interesting because a quote about the great Brazilian hangs round Button's neck like an albatross. His former kart team owner Paul Lemmens was once asked who the three best karters he had ever seen were. "Not three," he replied. "Two. Ayrton Senna and Jenson Button." Ernest Buser, the Max Mosley of the kart world, also says that Button reminds him of Senna.

Button's own expression discreetly betrays his dislike of such comparisons, which hold nothing but danger for the recipients even though they are made in good faith. There is nothing more onerous than the burden of great expectations. But with Button it is clear that no expectations impressed upon him by others come anywhere close to those he has of himself.

"Of course it's flattering," he said, "but I can't see anybody being the next Senna, because they are all completely different people. I won't be the next Senna, nobody will. But I want to be the next Jenson Button, and hopefully be in the same category as Senna was."

A smart answer, but also an indication of the self-confidence lurking behind his engaging manner. Win or lose tonight, at the sport's most prestigious ceremony, it doesn't matter. Button knows that he is already on his way. Now he's looking for the funding, which British drivers traditionally have trouble raising, to graduate to F3. There, he'll let the results speak for him again. Whether he likes the comparison or not, he has a style, momentum and purpose irresistibly reminiscent of Senna at the same stage of his career, and the same determination to make them work for him.