Motor racing: Teenage prodigy hailed as Owen of the race track

Jenson Button is charging through the grades towards Formula One in highly impressive fashion.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE WORKING day begins with a photo shoot. This way, that way, holding the helmet, helmet on the ground, smiling wide. He is the consummate professional.

He even remembers to change race suits before going out to test. Cigarette advertising restrictions in this country prohibit the displaying of his sponsor's name.

All part of a racing driver's job, no matter that he is barely 19. But then the motor racing world has been anticipating the development of this young driver for some time.

Many are convinced the search for Britain's next champion is over. Dubbing him the new Nigel Mansell or the new Damon Hill is unnecessary. With a name like Jenson Button why would he need to crib someone else's handle?

Also with a name like Jenson Button, of course, you would have to be quite intelligent and bright. By all accounts, he measures up to the requirements.

It is probably more apposite to call him the Michael Owen of the track. Among the commercial badges on his suit, is recognition of his McLaren AutoSport Award, the equivalent of a young player of the year honour.

Mansell and Hill achieved grand prix distinction relatively late in life. If Button's career continues on schedule, he could be driving a Formula One car in a couple of years.

On Sunday, at Brands Hatch, he competes in his fourth British Formula Three championship race, having delivered his maiden win in his third outing, at Thruxton, with the measured assurance of a veteran to go second in the 14-round championship.

His Promatecme Renault team and the ever-present talent spotters were satisfied the protege's star was safely in the ascendancy. So were Marlboro, who were sufficiently convinced of his potential when they recruited him to their exclusive coterie. The last UK drivers to have received their personal backing were Eddie Irvine, who claimed his maiden Gran Prix victory in Australia earlier this month, and Allan McNish, winner of the Le Mans 24-hour sports car race last year.

Marlboro are scarcely philanthropists. They covet winners and Button has been a winner ever since he started racing karts at the age of eight. He was the 1997 European Karting champion. He switched to cars last year and won the British Formula Ford Championship and the prestigious Formula Ford Festival, and was runner-up in the European Formula Ford Championship.

If he sustains his course through Formula Three he will step up to Formula 3000. Success there and Formula One would beckon.

"We've got a programme set out. I want to get to Formula One and be world champion," he said calmly and without a hint of arrogance. "I know I have to produce the results, but I feel we have all the ingredients here. We have a very good package."

Already he sounds like a grown-up driver. Like Owen, he is reckoned to have "an old head on young shoulders". He spent a day taking "media training", but has learned the communications and promotion ropes along with other aspects of racing over the past decade.

He was seemingly destined for this way of life when his parents named him Jenson. His father, John, was a rallycross enthusiast and steered his son's fledgling career. More recently they moved from their home in Somerset to Bicester and the epicentre of motor racing.

"Dad said I was looking tired when I got back from races and thought it would help me if I cut down on the travelling," explained Button, who put down his school books after sitting his GCSE's.

"Racing is all I ever wanted. I went with Dad to his race meetings and followed racing on television. [Ayrton] Senna was my idol. Also [Alain] Prost. A very intelligent, very smooth driver. I don't model myself on either of them, or anyone else, although people say my driving is smooth like Prost's."

Prost won the world championship four times and the consensus within the sport is that Button has all the attributes to reach that pinnacle. Little wonder he has been granted audiences with such Formula One luminaries as Bernie Ecclestone, Ron Dennis and Frank Williams. There are whispers of interest at Ferrari.

"I hear all these things people say and it's very flattering," he said. "But I know I've got to do well at this level if I'm going to get any further. There is a bit of pressure trying to live up to the expectations, but you have to get used to pressure for the higher formulae. You have to handle it."

A modern driver must cope also with technology and strict training regimes. The former appears not to faze him and the latter is guided by Senna's former trainer-physio, the Austrian Josef Leberer. "I'm in the gym five days a week," Button says. "Fitness is vitally important and I'm working hard on that side."

And still, he maintains: "I have the life of a normal 19-year-old. I like body boarding. I have a girlfriend, I enjoy going out, and I'm not banned from having a drink. In fact, Josef says it's OK to have a drink, especially after a race."

More especially, no doubt, when he wins.