Jenson Button's superb drive in the Malaysian Grand Prix must have been more than a little gratifying, considering that mere months ago the Renault team boss Flavio Briatore seemed hellbent on sacking him.
Button burst on to the scene with BMW Williams in 2000, and enjoyed a dream season. By the end of it he had psychologically demolished team-mate Ralf Schumacher, the winner of Sunday's race, but the arrival in the team of Juan Pablo Montoya for 2001 obliged him to switch to Benetton Renault. There his career went into freefall, damned by his initial struggle to come to terms with an uncompetitive car and a quick and experienced team-mate (Giancarlo Fisichella), a less than deserved reputation as a playboy, and Briatore's public criticism. Suddenly the hero became such a zero that, even when he began matching Fisichella by the end of the year, few took notice.
After his drive here, however, upward mode has been re-engaged. The manner in which Button fought with the faster cars of Juan Montoya and Michael Schumacher was timely.
Over the winter Button and Briatore bonded during a prolonged team training programme in Kenya. It seems that the Italian now understands his young English driver much better. "Jenson is looking much stronger this year," Briatore said in Malaysia. "He had a very frustrating year in 2001. It was difficult for a young driver to cope with such a situation. It was quite impossible. I believe he's changed a lot.
"He's changed his management, which looks like it's very good for Jenson. He's much more involved in the engineering, much better complicity for the whole team."
In fact, Button's newfound status is probably less to do with any of these things, than with Briatore's view of him. In their rebuilt relationship, he seems more inclined to cut Button some slack, and Button's confidence has been restored.
But for a problem with the rear suspension, Button would have picked up his first podium finish in Malaysia. And even though he is normally one of those cheerful and forward-looking drivers, he admits that it was an unpalatable pill to swallow.
"Two laps and two corners from the finish I felt something funny happening at the back of the car. Up until then it had been consistent and keeping a reasonable gap to Michael wasn't a problem. Then the car began scraping its floor on the track, and three-wheeling into some corners. I have to admit that running third felt great. It was mega. It felt too good to be true. And it was.
"After last season everything seems to be coming together now, so that was so disappointing. The car was working really well until Turn 12 on the 54th lap. Michael wasn't really catching me and I was having no problem maintaining my rhythm. I'd spent all race conserving my tyres, and I think I'd done a good job.
"I guess it just wasn't supposed to happen, and maybe that was our best chance for a podium this season. But I think we'll be strong in Brazil, too."
Renault have some way to go before they can pose a genuine threat to Ferrari, BMW Williams and McLaren Mercedes, as Briatore freely admits, but Button's performance in Malaysia – and team-mate Jarno Trulli's in Australia – confirmed the massive steps the team have taken since they struggled to match the Minardis 12 months ago.
"I believe that if we finish fourth or fifth overall, it will be very good for us," Briatore says of the 2002 season. "This is our target." On current form Renault may not be able to aim for the bullseye, but they are already hitting the inner. A year ago the darts would not even stick in the board.Reuse content