Baby-faced Button: a hero in the making

Richard Williams in Barcelona
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Among his many marketable attributes, young Jenson Button has a nice line in throwaway humour. In a motor-home at the Montmelo grand prix circuit outside Barcelona on Wednesday, the day of his 20th birthday, an Italian journalist asked if he had a girlfriend. "Yes, I have," he said. "Her name's Kimberley. We've been together for three years. How impressive is that for a racing driver?"

Among his many marketable attributes, young Jenson Button has a nice line in throwaway humour. In a motor-home at the Montmelo grand prix circuit outside Barcelona on Wednesday, the day of his 20th birthday, an Italian journalist asked if he had a girlfriend. "Yes, I have," he said. "Her name's Kimberley. We've been together for three years. How impressive is that for a racing driver?"

Good joke. Most of us had seen the notorious Eddie Irvine documentary, with its suggestion that a racing driver's personal life consists of an endless parade of interchangeable babes, each one to be used and discarded like a set of brake pads. But beyond the ironic self-mockery, you could hardly miss the sheer pride and pleasure as Button spoke the magic words "racing driver". This is a boy who is exactly where he wants to be, and who is not about to pretend to be feeling anything other than absolute delight.

At the moment, Button is looking very much like the answer to a British Formula One fan's prayer, a young hotshot ready to follow in the world championship wheel-tracks of Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill. From nowhere - or so it seems - he has arrived at the threshold of a coveted drive alongside Ralf Schumacher in the Williams-BMW team, which would make him the youngest British grand prix driver of all time, and the fifth youngest ever. With seven weeks to go before the first race of the new season, he is the hottest story around, and not only in Britain. This week Suddeutsche Zeitung, a sober Munich-based broadsheet, ran a feature headlined "Hysteria Surrounds an English Babyface" which drew comparisons not just with the talent of Ayrton Senna but with the teen-appeal of boy-bands.

In the insanely competitive world of Formula One, with its seething mass of sub-plots, a sudden arrival inevitably puts a few people's noses out of joint. A couple of former world champions, Jackie Stewart and Jody Scheckter, have been only too ready to suggest that Button is being pushed too far, too soon, by an ambitious management team whose plans run the risk of exposing him to pressures with which he is not yet equipped to cope.

At the centre of the story, however, Button was getting on with enjoying his extraordinary birthday. "I'm celebrating by doing what I love most," he said, "driving a Formula One car." But most of the day was spent pacing the paddock of the Circuit de Catalunya or sitting on the pit wall staring at a closed garage door. Behind it, a dozen mechanics were struggling to prepare the team's test hack, an interim car mating a BMW V10 engine to a 1999 Williams chassis. When, for 10 precious minutes, he did manage to get out on to the track, he marked the day by setting times that strengthened his claim to a place on the grid in Melbourne on 12 March. Afterwards he was presented with a cake in the Williams motor home, almost as if he were already part of the family.

This, however, was just the start of Part Two of his much publicised shoot-out with Bruno Junqueira, the 23-year-old Brazilian who, until a couple of weeks ago, had expected to be the team's replacement for Alex Zanardi. But when Frank Williams, alerted to the existence and availability of a bright new talent, made a call to Button, Junqueira's immediate future no longer seemed so assured.

Part One of the duel, in Jerez last weekend, failed to provide enough evidence. The team's new partnership with BMW - returning to Formula One after a 13-year absence - was going through teething problems, thanks to the inability of the engine to hold its oil. And when the test was extended to Barcelona, nothing much seemed to have changed.

On Wednesday morning, Button managed only four timed laps. Twice he returned to the pits in a van while the car came back on a truck. Each time the technicians descended on it with small torches and anxious expressions, searching for oil leaks. To add to the demands, the team had asked him to change his driving technique, by using his left foot rather than his right on the brake pedal, as is now common in Formula One. This considerable adjustment promised to be an extra test of his adaptability. Nevertheless, the fourth lap, his fastest, was completed in the respectable time of 1min 24.1sec. When Junqueira went out, late in the afternoon, the best of his three laps stopped the watch at 1:25.2. So Button had already scored a point over his more experienced rival.

On Thursday morning, Junqueira managed less than half a lap before the engine gave way. As the car was winched off the truck in front of the pits, it left a puddle of oil behind. Yet again, the garage door slammed shut. And when it stayed closed for the rest of the day, it became apparent that the team had finally run out of usable engines.

It was impossible not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Junqueira, whose expression grew increasingly forlorn. Button, on the other hand, was the centre of attention. Confronted by British, Italian and Japanese reporters, he answered questions with freshness and enthusiasm, despite getting an early taste of the paranoia that suffuses Formula One when a Williams PR minder prefaced the encounter by insisting on a ban on technical questions, by which she meant no inquiries about the BMW engine's obvious fragility.

Not for the first time, and assuredly not for the last, he talked about his childhood in Somerset and about how, after his parents had split up when he was seven, his father, a rallycross driver, had bought him a go-kart. "I lived with my mum, but my dad had me on weekends," Button said. "I was quite a lively little kid, and he couldn't find enough for me to do, so he bought me a kart just for fun. He found out that I was quite fast, so he put me in for a race, and I won it. I was eight, and we carried on from there. He's been helping me ever since."

John Button was in Barcelona this week, taking time off from his kart-tuning business in Bicester, standing quietly in the background, watching his son's continued progress with barely suppressed enthusiasm. In 12 years he has missed not one of Jenson's races, although his financial and technical support ended some time ago. "Now he can sit back and enjoy himself," his son observed. "He's done all the hard work."

Nowadays the negotiating is done by David Robertson, a motorsport-loving businessman, and Harald Huysman, a former racing driver who owns kart tracks around Europe and a couple of BMW dealerships in his native Norway. Two years ago, after Button had won the European kart championship, they signed him up to a management contract, subsidising his all-conquering season in Formula Ford and finding sponsors when he made a successful step up to Formula Three in 1999.

Autosport magazine's Young Driver of the Year award, presented at the end of the season, entitled him to 20 laps of Silverstone's club circuit in a current McLaren-Mercedes Formula One car. On a damp track, handling a car with four times the horsepower of his usual equipment, he managed to impress not just the team boss, Ron Dennis, but also Alain Prost, who invited him to spend a day testing at Barcelona before Christmas. Forty laps in a Prost-Peugeot produced outstanding times and the immediate offer of a contract to become the team's test driver. But when Frank Williams called, out of the blue, the sights were raised even higher.

"We've turned down several offers," Huysman said in Barcelona. "Other people would probably have been happy to take them. We had to keep ice in our stomachs while we were saying no. We could only do it because we have complete belief in Jenson's talent, and we're prepared to back our belief, as long as he feels that he's ready to take the next step."

There was not much doubt about that this week. Button expressed the opinion that he would "definitely" be ready to race in Australia, if invited. "I've got to work very hard on my fitness, and there are the things in Formula One that we don't do in Formula Three, like the pit stops, which I've got to learn about. Speed-wise, though, I think I'm almost there, and the team have done an excellent job to make me feel at home, and to feel like a Formula One driver."

It is all, he said, like a dream, but it was his resolve, as well as his talent, that has brought it close to reality. He left school at 16, after his GCSEs, believing that he knew his destiny. He had kept his racing activities a secret from his fellow pupils in the interests of maintaining normal relationships - something he could do because he lived with his mother in Somerset, and went to school there, while his father, with whom he spent the weekends, was in Oxfordshire.

That maturity showed itself again this week when he remarked that sitting around the pits in Jerez had been as valuable as actually driving the car. "I learnt a lot technically, and it gave me a chance to get to know everyone. So when I did get out in the car it definitely helped because I knew all their names, and it makes it easier when you're working with a team that you know. You feel more confident."

A lack of confidence is not, at this stage, likely to be among his problems. He is concerned neither by the prospect of joining the team during what is bound to be a difficult year - "They're going to try their best, and if I get the drive I'll do the same and hope to be noticed for that" - nor by the reputation of Frank Williams and Patrick Head, the team's plain-spoken technical director, for showing little patience with drivers who fail to get on the pace straight away or who display fragile egos. Nor is he deterred by the example of other drivers, most recently Jos Verstappen and Jan Magnussen, who came into Formula One with big reputations at a tender age, yet disappeared virtually without trace.

His heroes are two other drivers who began in karts and arrived in Formula One with self-confidence to match their prodigious talent. "When I was very young, it was definitely Ayrton Senna. Then Michael Schumacher came on the scene." And does he feel, deep inside himself, that he is capable of making a similar impact? "Obviously it's a very tall order, but that's what I'm hoping for. I'm not going to say too much, but I don't think I'd be trying for a Formula One seat if I didn't think I was able to do that. We'll see when it happens. If it happens."

Yesterday the garage doors stayed firmly closed while the team waited for more engines to arrive from Munich. All being well, the two rivals will go head to head again today, and the result will be announced here on Monday, when the new Williams-BMW FW22 is unveiled. If the Englishman prevails, the Formula One publicity machine will have acquired an extra talking-point in the run-up to the season. And then, as the storm of immoderate enthusiasm and chilly scepticism is redoubled, Button will discover the truth of something he may already suspect, the extent to which a grand prix driver's ability to succeed on the track depends on his talent for surviving the challenges outside the cockpit. A sense of humour will certainly do no harm.