Button will never be a great driver
Englishman can make history today and will be a worthy world champion but his feeble showing in the latter part of the season proves he is well short of legendary status
Sunday 04 October 2009
If Jenson Button wraps up the 2009 Formula One World Championship today, will he be remembered as a true "great" or just another driver who had his day in the sun after finding himself in the right place at the right time?
It's not a question with which he will be concerning himself overly in the coming weeks, but in later life it might start to resonate.
Measured as he must be by the most exalted standards, against the likes of Jim Clark, Gilles Villeneuve or Ayrton Senna, the answer is a resounding no. But then neither was Mike Hawthorn, nor Damon Hill.
Greatness is the majesty of Clark, dominating from the front in the rain at Spa in 1965, or scything through to the lead from a lap down at Monza in 1967. Greatness is Stirling Moss forever giving of his best, yet losing by a point to Hawthorn in 1958. Nursing his tyres to win for Cooper in Argentina, then thrusting his baulky Vanwall to victory in Holland, England and Morocco, yet also speaking up successfully in Portugal on his rival Hawthorn's behalf when the latter faced possible exclusion (and thus setting in train his own eventual defeat) because that was what an honourable racer did.
Greatness is Villeneuve's poise and unflappability leading a five-car train home in Spain in 1981, refusing to give up in extremis in Holland in 1979, continuously losing and regaining second place in France that year despite a huge power deficit and ruined tyres.
Greatness is also Senna's opening lap at Donington in 1993. So, no, Button will not be regarded as a great when he is measured against such feats from the giants of his game. Each of his six victories was dominant, and he made them look easier than they were, but some of his subsequent races were feeble, others just unconvincing.
The reasons lay in a variety of things such as his innate smoothness making it harder to generate decent tyre temperature, or chassis set-up issues, but it is impossible to envisage Clark dominating one moment and then looking like an also-ran the next.
But it falls to few to become true greats, so perhaps the question should be rephrased. Will Jenson Button be a worthy champion?
Then the answer is yes. He was presented with an opportunity, the cost of which turned out to be a 60 per cent cut on what Honda used to pay him. After the need to pay his own expenses, and the fact that he didn't get any bonuses for his six wins, it was more like an 80 per cent cut. But he believed in the Brawn team and their car, and he was prepared to do the same as other members of the team and lower his financial expectations.
Then he drove six beautiful races in the first seven events, and did a fine job in the seventh where his car was only good enough for third place. That's where the points advantage was built. Since then, his lead seemed like an open goal that rivals Rubens Barrichello, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber missed almost every time they had a shot lined up.
If Button succeeds Lewis Hamilton this season, it will be the first time in history that English drivers have won back-to-back titles.
"Jenson and I are good friends and have a lot of respect for one another," Hamilton says. "He's been doing a fantastic job, and you should never forget those six victories. He earned them, they didn't come easily."
There's another reason why he would be a worthy champion. A long time ago he was asked whether he would "do a Schumacher" and take a rival out. "Perhaps, if the championship was at stake with a few corners to go," he replied but the answer was unconvincing, as you might expect since it was posed at a time when the title seemed as remote as Mars.
This weekend somebody asked it again. "I don't think it means so much to you if you do that," he said. "It matters what sort of person you are, but it wouldn't mean so much to me if I did that or if I did something during the season like stopping the car on the circuit. I would feel like I had cheated myself and I am not the only driver who feels that. If Rubens was a different character maybe I would think differently, and if I was in a different situation with a team-mate that I hated, but I'm not in that situation.
"I would feel cheated and I would feel like I cheated the people watching. You would always think, 'I've got this title, but I cheated'. What's the point of that? It's a lie doing a running race and taking a short cut and getting a good time. You just don't do it. It would be just like robbing a bank."
Nor is he prepared to adopt the intimidatory tactics that Senna and Schumacher developed into an artform. "I don't see the point," he said, sounding for all the world like Alain Prost, who saw Senna's work close-up on countless 200mph occasions.
"It just ends up in accidents. It is better to be precise."
Those are the sentiments of a worthy champion, a good man capable of setting examples.
Britain's eight wonders of the world
Mike Hawthorn: 1958
On his day, the Farnham Flier could beat the great Fangio (at Rheims, 1953). But where Stirling Moss never had an off-day, Hawthorn's form was up and down. That was made more poignant when he became Britain's first world champion, despite winning only one race to Moss's four.
Graham Hill: 1962, '68
Forever portrayed as a worker in the inevitable comparisons with the great Jim Clark, Hill was a quick driver who would fiddle endlessly with the set-up of his cars to maximise their potential, to the despair of his mechanics. Still the only man to have won the F1 title, Indianapolis and Le Mans.
Jim Clark: 1963, '65
In my opinion, the Scot is the greatest the sport has ever seen. He had a subliminal talent that combined innate speed and feel for the limit of adhesion with a decisive killer instinct that deserted him the moment he left the cockpit, to become again an introverted and often unworldly man.
John Surtees: 1964
Not even Valentino Rossi is likely to emulate Big John's feat of winning World Championships on two and four wheels. The self-reliant Englishman had lots of speed and balance, but his penchant for ploughing his own furrow limited his success.
Jackie Stewart: 1969, '71, '73
Like his great compatriot Clark, Stewart was the real deal. He never had off-days or gave less than his best, even at places he hated, such as Spa, and had a fantastic feel for machinery. Off-track, he is the greatest ambassador and crusader in the sport's history.
Nigel Mansell: 1992
Nobody wore insecurity like Mansell, yet he seemed so invincible in the cockpit. In the era of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, he was the only runner who could consistently carry the fight to them, blending speed with unbelievable determination, self-belief and the sheer will to win.
Damon Hill: 1996
In so many ways, just an ordinary man blessed with an extraordinary talent. He wasn't the best out there, but he blended what he had with the ability to maximise his opportunities and make sure he was in the right place at the right time. Remains unfairly underrated.
Lewis Hamilton: 2008
How good is Hamilton? All you need to know is that he beat Fernando Alonso in his first season in F1. That's like Moss beating Fangio in the same car; or Stewart doing likewise to Clark. Unthinkable, but it happened, sending the Spaniard into a mental tailspin.
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