Button passes practice test

Williams' recruit overcomes bird-strike to show he can live with the best

He came, he saw - and he coped. Against the predictions of those who expected him to crack under pressure, Jenson Button proved himself a remarkably cool young man as he drove 40 incident-free laps round a slippery Albert Park. Later he even maintained his composure in the face of banal media questions that would have made a saint pitch something through a stained glass window (what would you say if somebody asked if you drink warm beer?).

He came, he saw - and he coped. Against the predictions of those who expected him to crack under pressure, Jenson Button proved himself a remarkably cool young man as he drove 40 incident-free laps round a slippery Albert Park. Later he even maintained his composure in the face of banal media questions that would have made a saint pitch something through a stained glass window (what would you say if somebody asked if you drink warm beer?).

Melbourne's gripless racetrack was a trap that lay in wait for new boys. But instead of Button, it was Michael Schumacher who fell off the tightrope. Against his racer's inclinations the Briton held himself in check to play a cautious game, but was bold enough to be the second man to take to the track after Brazil's Ricardo Zonta. And for the first half hour his time remained good enough to be second fastest.

His father, John, who first took him kart racing as a keen eight year old, smiled quietly out the back of the Williams garage. "I wasn't surprised to see him going so well that early on," he admitted. "Jens has always been good in those circumstances. Okay, the other guys knocked his time back as they hit their stride, but he proved a point, don't you think?"

Few Formula One debuts have aroused such hype and controversy as Button's, partly because of his tender years and partly because his managers have put some heavyweight noses out of joint. There are not many people confident enough in the paddock to turn down offers from McLaren's Ron Dennis, or Jackie Stewart. But it is hardly the first time a driver has stepped straight out of Formula Three and into the big league. Stewart did it himself in 1965, Mika Hakkinen when he joined Lotus in 1991. It is easy to overlook that Button actually had more racing experience, mainly on karts, than Damon Hill did at the point at which each first stepped aboard an F1 Williams.

Button Snr chuckles at suggestions that his son will be frightened going into the first corner on Sunday afternoon. "If they saw the start of a Super A kart race, with 30 of the world's best karters all vying for position, they'd appreciate that Jens will feel a lot safer sitting in a carbon fibre monocoque chassis," he said. Button himself simply laughs at such suggestions: "Every circuit has a first corner, so what's the big deal?"

The big deal has been Button's calmness and pace. Fellow rookie Gaston Mazzacane may have upstaged him with 12th fastest time, but few doubt that was achieved with his Minardi in qualifying trim. Button ran race levels of fuel all day.

"I have to say that I am reasonably encouraged by what I have seen today," admitted Patrick Head, Williams' technical director and a man not given much to overstatement. "Jenson did a good job and his only problem was when he hit a bird. That's the second time it's happened to him this year."

Button received encouragement yesterday from the Jordan driver Jarno Trulli, another karting star who himself graduated to F1 after only 18 months racing F3 cars. "We never raced together, but very often we were at the same meetings, so I have known him a long time. I cannot give him advice; he knows what he has to do. Just get as much mileage as possible in an F1 car and as soon as he feels comfortable he will be quick because he is talented, I know. He is OK, so he will quickly understand what to do."

If Button felt overawed by F1 yesterday, it did not show. He has been left in no doubt that if he does not perform to high levels in this one-year chance, talk of the future will be academic. Williams, never a team to cosset, is to driver psychology what General Pinochet is to political harmony.

"Today was really all about learning the circuit and working with the team on the set-up, and it's been good," Button said. "There have been few surprises, though I was amazed how slow some of the corners are here. Maybe they'll come as the weekend goes on.

"It's difficult for a lot of people to speak about me being in F1 because they don't know me as a person or so much as a driver. If you are ready for F1, you are ready. It doesn't matter what age you are, within reason. There's a lot of pressure, especially outside the car, but the driving is the most important part. It's definitely not the easiest part, of course."

Button is too astute to play that aspect down and his self-confidence stays nicely the right side of arrogance. But to a fellow who has been winning races for 12 of his 20 years, it is just a bigger, more powerful machine with four wheels and a steering wheel but with higher levels of grip to assess and exploit.

If you interpret yesterday's form properly, he has already made a good start.

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