Button on standby for switch from talking horse to winner
Britain's leading racer has gone more than 100 grands prix without a victory. David Tremayne talks to a man geared to breaking his duck this time
Saturday 11 March 2006
David Coulthard could tell Jenson Button all about the pitfalls of public expectations of world championship success. Doubtless he has during one of their partying moments. In his years at McLaren-Mercedes, the 35-year-old Scot habitually began each new season with a nice little speech, the gist of which was that this time, honest, he really believed that he could lift the championship crown.
Coulthard has at least won 13 grands prix, but the highest he ever finished in the title chase was second in 2001.
Now, as Britain's leading racer, 26-year-old Button has that same albatross draped around his neck, that same burden of expectation. And those who had so adorned him, his countless fans around the world, are becoming ever so slightly impatient for the sort of results they believe him to be capable of.
A win would help.
Thus far, Button has failed to deliver the results that his form in 2000, as a rookie with Williams -BMW, suggested he had within him. Meanwhile Fernando Alonso, the man who replaced him at Renault, has become the youngest-ever world champion.
Back in 1975 another young man, 23-year-old Tony Brise, finally burst upon the Formula One scene with an insouciant confidence, determination and brashness that marked him out in the clearest terms as a champion of the future.
But then Brise was one of five innocent victims of Graham Hill's attempt to land his Piper Aztec in fog at Elstree aerodrome on 29 November 1975, and Formula One lost a genuine star who could have gone all the way.
Back then the coming men of the sport lived in modest accommodation: Brise and his wife, Janet, had a typical young couple's starter home in Bexley, Kent. Button, who reminded several people of Brise when he arrived in 2000, began his Formula One career living in a rented mansion in St George's Hill, Weybridge's "Millionaires' Row".
That sea change in financial remuneration is one reason why one should not feel sorry for Button as he faces the sternest test of his career, and why people are entitled to hold high expectations. He has already earned sufficient for several lifetimes, even if he did have to pay a rumoured $30m (£17.2m) to escape the contract held for 2006 by Sir Frank Williams. His new deal with Honda will earn him more than three times that in the next five years. And if not this year, then in at least one of them Honda will expect him to wear the champion's crown. As Michael Schumacher will tell you, a driver needs the right technical package, and the signs for Button are looking very good.
There is about the Japanese manufacturer, which bought out British American Tobacco's remaining share of BAR-Honda last season, the steely intent that led to domination in the past with Williams and McLaren. Button recently topped the final major test session in Barcelona, and has racked up more test mileage than anybody else. His Honda is both fast and reliable.
"I cannot wait!" he said this week as the circus prepared to open up its big top in Bahrain this weekend. "All the hard work we've done in testing is vital. I'm very excited about this season and the whole team are fired up after seeing the step forward we've made since last year. I think this is going to be the most exciting season in years and for our part, I think we're going to be right up there.
"It's been a very long winter and the whole team have put in an incredible amount of hard work. In testing, our reliability has been very good. I've completed the most kilometres out of all the race drivers this winter, and as a team we've completed the most kilometres, so it's great. It's very important to put miles on the car and the engine and it also means that you get more opportunity to test tyres and components."
That is the endearing thing about Button, an open and affable young man. He may be a multimillionaire (which must help to assuage any disappointment), but he is still an enthusiastic racer with an itch to scratch. Even Nigel Mansell won a race before he reached a century of starts, but Button does not let his 100-plus winless record bother him these days.
He has focused instead on honing himself to a physical peak, just as Schumacher does. "I'm fitter now than I've ever been. I've spent a lot of time at the Olympic training camp in Lanzarote and I've been doing just about everything you can imagine to push myself as hard as possible - triathlons, biathlons and lots of events as well, which is good preparation because it gets you in the right mood for racing. I feel good within myself and mentally very strong."
He will need to be. Alonso is as determined to win the crown in 2006 as he was in 2005, and Renault's test form suggests they will be every bit as strong again. McLaren have also been burning the midnight Mobil down at their palatial Woking headquarters, and recent running suggested strongly that Mercedes-Benz engine reliability problems have been overcome. But the opposition will not just come from rivals. For the first time in a while Button has a team-mate - the Brazilian Rubens Barrichello - who will be pushing him all the way. If the Ferrari refugee gets the upper hand in their so far good-natured rivalry, Button's reputation (and future earning capacity) is going to nosedive faster than a contestant in Red Bull's human-powered flight challenge.
"Rubens is a good guy and he brings a lot of experience to the team," Button says. "I don't think that you learn anything from other drivers in terms of their way of driving or their way of working because that's a very personal thing, but they bring a new perspective which can be really useful.
"I think it's going to be very competitive between us. Rubens is still so hungry for success. We have a great working relationship and we will have to work closely off the circuit to get the best result for the team. On track, though, we'll both be pushing as hard as we can. We've had some great battles in the past and made some great overtaking manoeuvres on each other. This year we're in equal cars so I'm sure we're going to find each other many times on the race track, but it will always be good clean fun!"
Barrichello says: "Jenson and I have been working very well together in winter testing. I think he's a quick driver, he's been settled at the team for a long time, so there are a lot of things to learn from him. We learn from everyone, every day. It would be too arrogant to come here today and say I have 13 years' experience and so I have nothing else to learn and that's it. I think it's going to be very competitive between us and I'm sure we'll enjoy some great racing against each other."
In common with the other drivers, Button will also have to come to grips with a revised qualifying format and regulations which once again allow tyre changes in races.
"I think the qualifying system will be good," Button insists. "I think it will be great for the crowd as they'll see a lot of cars out on the circuit, which is important for Formula One, and after the first qualifying session, people will get used to the format.
"Tyre changes are a big thing for the spectacle of the sport and also for the fact that a lot of people get involved with the pit stops - it's a proper team effort and that's fantastic. I think it's good for the spectators also."
Last year, Renault showed the value of a reliable and competitive start to the season and Honda are perfectly positioned to emulate them this weekend. They tested in Bahrain recently, together with Ferrari, "which gave us the opportunity to run the tyres in the hot conditions whereas at the European circuits it's been pretty cold at times."
In a week we will know where everybody stands in the pecking order. Right now, Jenson Button is heading to Bahrain to win. Anything else will count as failure.
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