Button grows fonder of Honda

Team Button's first pole signals progress as Ecclestone toys with rotation game
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The Independent Online

Jenson Button's pole position for the Australian Grand Prix earlier today marked the first time since 1968, when Big John Surtees was fastest in practice for the Italian GP at Monza, that a Honda has been at the head of a starting grid.

Doubtless the historical aspects of his feat occupied the 26-year-old Briton's thoughts for far less time than did its significance, and Honda-powered Williams, McLaren and BAR cars have taken many poles in the intervening years. But this success came just as it was beginning to seem as if the team's pre-season optimism might have been misplaced, as Renault again got the jump on everyone in Bahrain and Malaysia. It may yet transpire that Honda chose to run Button with a lighter fuel load than either of the Renault drivers, Giancarlo Fisichella or Fernando Alonso, but it was a timely boost.

Can Button win at last? It has become almost too embarrassing a matter to raise with him. He is as sick of the question as everybody else is of asking it. "Hopefully we will be competitive here," he said with measured tone at the start of the weekend. "We've had some issues with driveability via our traction control which we will have resolved by Imola, but we also have a very good tyre choice for here in the cooler conditions, and I still think that Michelin is the better tyre right now."

He admitted that Malaysia was the first podium finish of his career where he was genuinely disappointed, believing that he should have been one step further up, but he is pleased with his consistent points-scoring finishes over his past dozen races. "If we cannot win, then we at least always want to be on the podium," he said. "The biggest thing is that it is so competitive now that you cannot afford to have any mistakes in the weekend, so I am looking forward to a trouble-free run."

Qualifying was twice interrupted yesterday, first when the rookie Yuji Ide spun, then when Felipe Massa crashed his Ferrari. A rain shower hurt Michael Schumacher's prospects, and even Button has been off-track a little more than one has come to expect. But when it mattered he did the business.

"It's a fantastic feeling to be on pole here after such a manic qualifying session. With two red flags and the rain shower halfway through, it was very difficult to stay calm. That's exactly what we did, though."

With Button, Fisichella, Alonso, Raikkonen and Montoya separated by less than a second the race may well be a lottery, rather like Max Mosley's new "beauty contest" entry list for the 2008 championship. The FIA say that they received 22 entries by Friday's closing date. Besides the current 11 teams, these are believed to include former team principals David Richards, Eddie Jordan, Craig Pollock; and Mosley's nemesis Paul Stoddart. The Melbourne entrepreneur was in Albert Park, and smiled mischievously. "If you look at the boxes I tick, it's not bad: have I got an engine deal? Yes [he has agreed terms with Cosworth already]. Have I got a car? Yes. [he will run his existing Minardi PS04Bs]. Have I got a team? Yes [24 people still remain on Stoddart's payroll]. Have I done this before? Yes."

He expects, however, that the remaining 12th available place will go to the former Benetton and BAR Honda principal David Richards, given his own past spats with Mosley, but conceded of his chance: "I reckon it could happen. I'm not a complete fool, and I've discussed it with Bernie. He's in favour."

It is not the only question that has occupied F1's ringmaster of late. He is entertaining the idea of staging races on a biennial or even triennial basis. This has happened before, notably when the British Grand Prix alternated prior to 1987 between Silverstone and Brands Hatch. But the idea now would be that a venue had the race once every three years, making it more of a big deal. This would have the convenient effect of making room for more venues at a time when the teams do not really want more than 18 races in a season.

"I thought of it after I saw the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne,'' Ecclestone told The Age newspaper, referring to the excitement of the event which was responsible for the grand prix being put back a month. "That way, people would get a big hype for when it happens.''

It could be the answer to falling gates in Germany's double races at Hockenheim and Nürburgring, and might also open doors for rumoured events in Singapore, Mumbai, Indonesia and Russia.