To begin with, the conversation is desultory, almost strained, and the grain of politeness cannot disguise the fact that Jenson Button has as little to say as his questioners have to ask. It is Thursday afternoon at Hockenheim. Usually, this is the time and place where the rumours kick off about the following year; this year everything is curiously flat. Perhaps it has just been a very long season already, and it has only just passed its halfway mark.
Even getting Button to ask the questions for once doesn't do the trick. He has never been particularly demonstrative, nor is he one of nature's raconteurs. Just one of those pleasant guys who maintains an even demeanour. You would struggle to recall the last time you saw him good and mad. In the end, all it takes is one innocent question, and suddenly things get interesting. A whole new insight opens up. Would your first win get a monkey off your back?
Outwardly, Button's long face remains calm, but there is a noticeable hint of steel in his voice now, and more than a hint of the inner frustration that has been building all season. "That's bullshit," he says. "People say all sorts of things like that, and it's not as if I'm inexperienced at leading races. You don't suddenly start driving differently in order to win. We all know how to do it. When people say that, it's frustrating because you know you are giving everything and that you can't do better."
Watch any second-rate racing movie and there is always a time when the camera swoops in as the hero suddenly becomes determined and you see his foot find another inch of movement in the throttle pedal. The car surges forward. Button laughs at the point. Like any F1 driver, he knows that is pure fiction; even the guys struggling at the back are driving flat out. It's the nature of the game. Imagine yourself doing something to your absolute maximum, the very best you can, and how you'd feel knowing that the one thing still holding you back was your equipment rather than your talent. Welcome to life for 90 per cent of the guys on the grid. In Button's case, the promise of his early years was almost realised as he chased Schumacher last season, but now, at 25, he can see his opportunities slipping away again.
So when will the first victory come? "I'm the first one asking that question," he says, still too polite to snap back. And then more frustration oozes out. F1 Racing magazine's "expert" jury have just dropped him way down from his second place slot in 2004's half-term report. This year he is behind Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher, as one might expect, but having Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld, David Coulthard, Giancarlo Fisichella, Rubens Barrichello and Mark Webber also in front of him really hurts.
"They put me 10th!" he splutters, pondering the insult. "I tell you, I'm driving the best I can, better than in 2004, and look where I'm finishing. If you don't have the right equipment, you can't score points. So many people just don't understand the way F1 works. It's frustrating when you know what you can do. Everyone in the team knows what I can do. A lot of people outside the team do, too. Why haven't I won? Because you haven't seen me in a competitive car that can win races. Trust me, if I had been I'd have won races by now.
"You can't do it unless you are in a car competitive enough to win races. And the reason why some guys break through and then keep winning is not that they've suddenly figured out how to do it, but because they've finally got a car good enough to win."
For Button, that car does not seem to be this year's BAR 007 - nor, in all probability, will it be the Williams FW28 he seems contractually bound to drive in 2006 (the team are expected to announce today they will use the new Cosworth V8 engine as a stopgap in 2006). Those who say nice guys don't win overlook Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, but Button is getting impatient. As Alonso and Raikkonen slug it out for the title, backed by their team-mates, Fisichella and Juan Pablo Montoya respectively, it's small wonder that on this lazy afternoon in Germany his angst has finally risen to the surface.
By Saturday afternoon he is feeling more chipper after qualifying on the front row for the second race in succession. When his turn to qualify comes he grabs it with both hands, and as the ITV commentator Martin Brundle observed, it is a gutsy, full-on lap. After the Renaults of Fisichella and Alonso have come and gone, each failing to better his 1min 14.759sec, only the two McLarens can dislodge him. Raikkonen does so fairly comprehensively, with a less than clean pole-winning lap of 1min 14.320sec. And Montoya is all set to as well, until his MP4/20 slides beyond his control in the very last corner and pirouettes to an undignified stop in the gravel. From Silverstone champ to Hockenheim chump within two weeks.
"We have made progress since Silverstone but not quite enough to challenge the front runners yet," Button says, knowing that the Renaults were carrying more fuel. "This is actually the first time I've started inside the top 12 here."
Last year he drove from 13th to second here, but you already know what he will say if you were to ask whether he can go one better this afternoon.Reuse content