Button accelerates on fast track from playboy to title pretender

Britain's brightest Formula One talent will line up at Silverstone tomorrow in confident mood. Interview by David Tremayne
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The Independent Online

In a sport in which perspectives frequently get distorted, Jenson Button straightens a few things out when he looks back on his fruitless years with Benetton-Renault. Now that he has cracked the art of finishing on the podium and established himself again as the brightest star in the British firmament, he can afford to look back without the anguish of his French years. As he opens up, the reasons become clearer why results were so hard to come by in a team in which Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli appeared to be the stars.

In a sport in which perspectives frequently get distorted, Jenson Button straightens a few things out when he looks back on his fruitless years with Benetton-Renault. Now that he has cracked the art of finishing on the podium and established himself again as the brightest star in the British firmament, he can afford to look back without the anguish of his French years. As he opens up, the reasons become clearer why results were so hard to come by in a team in which Giancarlo Fisichella and Jarno Trulli appeared to be the stars.

"If my confidence now is 100 per cent," he suggests, "when I came into Formula One with Williams in 2000 it was about 80, I would say. But that first year with Renault? Probably about 40." A pause. "Probably about 35, actually, in 2001. Then about 60, 55, in 2002."

Confidence is everything for any sportsman, and this season Button has it again in spades. The transformation was evident at times in 2003, as he began to repay the faith that the BAR-Honda team principal, David Richards, had shown in signing him at a time when his stock was low and the boy wonder of 2000 had been brought back down to earth. But Richards was shrewd enough to see the potential.

Button led the US Grand Prix for a while, and had a lap or two in front in Japan, too. But the real change came over the winter months, when they set the pace throughout testing. Inevitably, that triggered suggestions that the team were simply grandstanding to attract sponsors. That was partly the case, as Richard adopted a bold business strategy, but Button is adamant that the times were real.

"It was fantastic because we knew how quick we were. When we did those test runs in the winter in Barcelona we were running low fuel, but I don't think anyone else could have done those times at that time of the year, however much fuel they were running. It was fantastic to know that people thought we were running light, no weight in the car. We were pretty happy."

When he first visited a Formula One paddock, in Spain back in 1998 when he was only 18 and racing in Formula Ford, Button exuded unusual maturity bred from years of kart racing. But his early seasons in the big league were tarnished by his penchant for shiny toys - the Ferrari 360 Modena, the yacht moored close to the paddock in Monte Carlo. The downturn in his racing fortunes, allied to an apparently playboy lifestyle, made him a target for the critics. But now Button is back out of that wilderness, and there is a quiet steeliness in his eyes and in his tone that is the final indication that his journey to genuine grand prix stardom is almost over. All he needs now is the first victory to cement his claim to be a genuine pretender to Michael Schumacher's crown. After the stunning debut in 2000, and then the slump with Renault, it feels good.

"Fantastic, actually! But it feels natural, really, because I've worked so hard for it. I can't actually do any more to improve myself or to push the team, so this is me, 100 per cent at the moment. I put so much effort in over the winter - not just myself but the whole team - to improve the car, and it's really worked. But we are not there yet. We are still improving, but I can't possibly do any more than I am at the moment."

Several times in the past a podium finish had beckoned, only for a last-minute failure to intervene. Malaysia changed all that, with third place behind Schumacher and Montoya, and then suddenly there was a flow of them: third again in Bahrain; second (with the first pole) in Imola; second in Monaco; third in Germany and Canada.

"The strange thing is that if you look at last year we got so close to podiums and never got one. And now this year, as soon as I got one I got six! It's very weird."

Such has been BAR's progress this year, however, that the novelty wore off quickly. "Two weeks later, in Bahrain, it was like, 'Oh, this is the way it's going to be!' But then we were just immediately thinking that we need to challenge Ferrari for a win, and we didn't actually think that would be as hard as it has been. They have been so strong all year, they really have."

Button and BAR have put the red cars under pressure at times, forcing them to change their strategy for qualifying. It has been a compliment to their increasing competitiveness.

"Not just the drivers but sometimes the teams make mistakes, and it's great to see that we are putting them under pressure. But they are very strong, and I can't believe their reliability!"

It was in Bahrain that rumours gathered strength that Button would jump at the chance to go back to lead Williams, and there was a degree of scepticism when he rebuffed them and said that he was more than happy to stay with his new team.

Subsequent races have lent his words greater weight. "You can't keep chopping and changing. Continuity is very important within a team, and for the drivers. I'm very happy here."

In comparison with Renault, BAR is like a family, and in its nurturing environment Button has blossomed again. Being wanted and needed are crucially important in Formula One. "That's pretty much the case. We are a pretty open team. We are very open with each other and we say what we think. Which really works. So, yeah, I am very happy.

"Really being wanted is important. It was a difficult situation at Renault, and maybe it helps that we are a British team. Maybe. Understanding how people are, their emotions. It's great here. It's easier than it is with another nationality."

The impressive thing about Button is that he has retained an even temperament through the bad times and the good. He is approachable, easy-going, yet tough when circumstances demand. It is a roundness that will stand him in good stead when the BAR package matures sufficiently to facilitate the victories that finally seem inevitable.

One of the few things that has irritated him is an occasional problem with excessive oversteer that has taken the edge off his Saturday morning speed come qualifying in the afternoon.

"The biggest problem I've got is that we have been consistently on the podium!" he says, then laughs at the irony. "It's a problem in a way because you are always at the front in pre-qualifying and that can make it very difficult. You are driving when the circuit is dirty. Takuma [Sato, his team-mate] for whatever reasons has been out later, so we have been looking at what he's been doing with his set-up compared to his lap time, and thinking 'OK, he's been running more front wing so we should be a bit closer to that.' At Indy my car was OK in pre-qualifying, but then we changed it because Taku was so quick subsequently, and I had a stupid amount of oversteer. That was why we lost time there."

Button's driving style has also matured, to the point where he now likes his car set up the way that Schumacher does, so that it responds immediately to steering inputs and tends to oversteer, or slide its back end.

"The problem is with this car you need to have it slightly on the nose, but finding the right balance is very difficult. I like a pointy [slightly oversteering] car. I used to like understeer but I think the quickest way round is to have the car slightly pointy. It's not so much that I've changed my style. I think I have always driven the cars when I've had no confidence in them in the past, especially at Renault. So I've always wanted a bit of understeer. Now I'm confident with this car, and I know if I get oversteer that it's gradual and controllable."

At Imola, when Button led initially, Schumacher was complimentary about his driving. Frankly, the Englishman expected to have won a race by now, but he denies that frustration is beginning to creep in. "Our best chance was in Monaco, and if the safety car had come out at the right time we probably would have won. But it didn't, it came out a lap late! At Imola we were quick, but we were nowhere near the Ferraris' race pace, so it would have to have been Monaco. We are close to the win, but we are still so far away, if you know what I mean. We are finishing second and third, but the Ferrari just seems to be such a strong car."

Button has always had the speed and the temperament to succeed in Formula One. And he has the personality and demeanour to cope with it. What has been missing, besides the right car, is the confidence. But not any more. If the breakthrough were to come in this weekend's British Grand Prix at Silverstone, he is more than ready for it - and the fans certainly are.

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