A year ago, Jenson Button was just hitting his stride as the new golden boy of Formula One. Qualifying fifth – for the second time in only four races, ahead of much-vaunted team-mate Ralf Schumacher – he found himself running ahead of the German's elder brother Michael, too, on his way to a fifth-place finish.
Twelve months later Button had learned that F1 can bite. A miserable season at Benetton Renault has seen him upstaged much of the time by team-mate Giancarlo Fisi-chella – himself deemed to be on the skids last season – as both struggle with an uncompetitive, underpowered car. Such has been Button's form this season that there has even been talk of him being replaced before the end of the year, and not running with Benetton in 2002 despite the iron-clad two-year deal that Benetton struck with Sir Frank Williams, who has the 21 year-old Englishman under contract until the end of 2004.
"It's not as if he woke up one day and his talent had deserted him," insisted Button's manager, businessman David Robertson. "People have to understand that it is difficult fitting into a new team with a car that has problems."
Button has received some overdue moral support from Benetton. Chief engineer Pat Symonds said: "People under-estimate the value of continuity. The team know what Giancarlo thinks and what he likes after three years, whereas Jenson is new. There is no doubt that he is a very, very rapid driver who can do better than we are allowing him to at present. Really, I think his problems have been down to continuity and little else."
Button clicked with BMW Williams directors Sir Frank and Patrick Head last season, when at times he outqualified and outraced Ralf Schumacher in the second half of a highly successful rookie season. But the Benetton chief, Flavio Briatore, has a reputation for feeding on those perceived as weak. He is the man who said nothing to Johnny Herbert in 1995 after the Englishman had won his team the Italian GP at Monza. But Briatore has now indicated Button's future is safe with a team that have taken some ambitious technical steps for 2001 in the hope of moving up fast in 2002.
That ambition has led to unreliability which has cost Benetton 60 per cent of the track- testing time they had accrued this time last season. That hasn't helped Button, whose problems have further been compounded by internal politics. When he was finally given the same chassis set-up as Fisichella in Magny-Cours a fortnight ago he responded by lapping faster than the Italian and running ahead of him until a bungled pit stop.
"I knew at the start of the season that things were going to be very difficult," Button admits. "It's just a little bit tougher than I thought, but a lot of the other problems haven't just been the team. I've also had my own. The car has been quite difficult to work with but the good thing is that I'm more confident than I was." He has seven races left in which to rebuild his image.Reuse content