Button unbuttons

After a hugely disappointing season, the BAR-Honda driver is still looking for his first formula one win in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday
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The Independent Online

He is not much given to introspection, but a victory in front of his home crowd at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday would do more than just lift the spirits of the battered BAR-Honda team, it would also restore Button's claim to the status of his fellow pretenders Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.

Button and BAR had more right than most to their dreams in 2005, having run Ferrari close in 2004. "I am hoping, as are the team, that our first win is just around the corner," he said. It wasn't. In 10 races Button best finishes are last week's fourth in France, a 10th and an 11th. He has retired three times (once after crashing in Canada), been disqualified once and missed three other races, two because of BAR's ban after Imola (where initially he placed third) for allegedly using fuel as ballast, and one because of tyre safety concerns in Indianapolis. For BAR, 2005 is a year that has never really got started.

"It has been pretty horrendous," Button admits. "But we are still upbeat. We know we've got a reasonably quick car, it's not the quickest on the grid, but we have the third or fourth best car out there. The good thing is I am with a great team and we know I can do the job. If I knew that I would never score any points in 2005 I would be pretty disappointed, but knowing that we do have the pace gives you a bit of a boost."

The addition of the words "I suppose" to the final sentence is almost wistful and provides insight into his true feelings. Instead of being confirmed as a winner he has once again been obliged to act the role of the man who has to keep everyone's spirits up. That's part of the badge of team leadership, and a tough call for anyone forced to watch rivals getting closer to their own dreams.

"It's completely different, say, to my first year at Benetton," Button insists, denying that 2005 is his worst season since entering Formula One in 2000. "I didn't drive as well as I should have then, whereas here I am driving better than last year. I think I'm more consistent in qualifying. I don't make so many mistakes."

Unfortunately, the one mistake that will be remembered came when he clobbered a wall in Canada, losing a possible third-place finish. "I should have realised I would have less grip after running wide in the hairpin. Off line it was so slippery in Montreal. When I got to the chicane and turned in, it just went straight into the wall with big understeer. When you're fighting for third position it's very frustrating, especially when it's your own mistake. You sit on the grass bank and think, 'I've let myself down and I've also let the team down.' But you've got to forget it because these things happen; you've just got to make sure they don't happen very often. The team were very supportive."

Earlier in the year the boot had been on the other foot, with Button chastising the team's engineering partner, Honda, in an uncharacteristic outburst after their engines failed in Malaysia. Up until then he had tended to play the game the way Michael Schumacher does, keeping any friction internalised. Several observers thought it about time he demonstrated to the outside world that there is steel behind his usual Mr Nice Guy countenance.

"I would say that I'm a corporate player, but it's more important than ever that I've got to show emotion to the team. It's the best thing I could possibly do, to show the team that I do care, that I'm not just along for the ride."

The rockier the ride has become in 2005, the greater the pressure he has felt to lift the team. "I have to make sure they are positive and in the right frame of mind. As soon as they get down, that's it; it's very hard to fight back. Most of the guys at the circuits know what's happening, but the guys back at the factory maybe don't get as much information as they would like, so by spending a bit of time with them I can tell them what's going on and be positive with them."

At the ripe old age of 25, Button has also become a veteran on the subject of dealing with the pressures of sudden fame. At Indianapolis he advised Danica Patrick, the woman driver who is arousing such interest in IndyCars, on coping with all the hype. His own career climb is being reflected in that of Scottish tennis player Andy Murray. Button, who went to Wimbledon, says: "He's obviously a great player with a long career ahead of him, but they've just got to leave him to it and he's got to work very hard to start achieving, while everyone is watching him. He seems like a down to earth person, and at 18 he'll still be buddies with his school friends."

Button's own school friends have been supportive by keeping him grounded and helping him through his recent break-up with his fiancée, Louise, whom he was due to marry in August. "My friends weren't shocked by the whole F1 thing and wouldn't treat me any differently, which is very important," he says. "It's the same with my family."

The fans will back him at Silverstone on Sunday, but you sense the same embarrassment he felt last year. "Going to my home grand prix after such a good year last year was fantastic, I couldn't wait to get there. But this year is a little bit different because it's been such a bad season. I just hope that we still have as many fans as we had before. The way the fans react doesn't change anything in the way you drive, because I give everything anyway, but it would just be a nice feeling for everyone in the team if we have a lot of fans there and everyone is very positive.

"It was awesome last year. I couldn't believe all the BAR hats. It was hyped up so much that we would win the British Grand Prix, and I knew from testing that it would be very difficult and I didn't want to let people down, but hopefully they will still support us this year." There is another wistful pause before he adds: "But lots of people in Jenson Button hats is not suddenly going to make everything right." Not the way things have been going so far.

Button's overall aim remains as it has always been. "I want to win a race. As a racing driver that's what I want to do. We want to win the championship, of course, but we need first to concentrate on winning a race." But his message to the fans this year is clear: we will all do our best, but please do not expect too much this weekend.