Button's uphill fight in a feeble machine

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The Independent Online

Twelve months ago he was the toast of this city after a Formula One debut race that was on course for sixth place until engine failure excluded him. But while Jenson Button suspected that 2001 was going to be a tough season, as he switched from Williams-BMW to the restructuring Benetton-Renault team, it was only in Sunday afternoon's Australian Grand Prix that the 21-year-old Englishman was able to quantify just how steep a mountain he faces. Think of K2, then double it.

Twelve months ago he was the toast of this city after a Formula One debut race that was on course for sixth place until engine failure excluded him. But while Jenson Button suspected that 2001 was going to be a tough season, as he switched from Williams-BMW to the restructuring Benetton-Renault team, it was only in Sunday afternoon's Australian Grand Prix that the 21-year-old Englishman was able to quantify just how steep a mountain he faces. Think of K2, then double it.

As new rookies basked in the spray of champagne, Button was left to struggle in a feeble machine, overtaken by his management stable-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who dashed home sixth to score a point on his debut, and blown away comfortably by the man who replaced him at Williams-BMW, Juan Pablo Montoya.

Things started badly for Button, and never got any better. He was late arriving on the grid for the formation lap, and as mechanics scampered away from the blue car as the others set off for their final warm-up tour, officialdom looked on and frowned. When the dust of the fifth-lap accident had finally settled and the racing resumed, Button was given a 10 second stop-go penalty, which dropped him from 11th place to the back of the field.

Then an exhaust pipe split, robbing him of power. Finally, his recalcitrant machine ground to a halt on the 53rd of 58 laps when the exhaust problem created an electrical one. He had just overtaken his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella... for 13th place.

Button bore his misfortune with the stoicism which will guide him through and make him a stronger driver. He talked of how impressed he was with the balance of the Benetton, and the fight he had with Jos Verstappen until a trip over a kerb lost him places, but it was a smile with gritted teeth. It will be a while before he gets the chance to shine again.

Montoya, too, was upstaged by Raikkonen, and admits that he was surprised when Sir Frank Williams chose him ahead of Button. "Jenson did a really good job in his first year and I thought with a second season it would have been even better with him. I obviously liked Frank's decision, and hope I can live up to what is expected of me."

The former ChampCar driver revealed in the opening laps the speed that his supporters have long touted, and he was unlucky to be caught in first-corner bunching and found himself overshooting the turn in the confusion. Montoya's recovery from 13th to third place by the 40th lap was confirmation of his ability to drive quickly - he set the race's fourth fastest lap - and he was thus able to lay to rest the suspicion that he had over-driven in practice and qualifying in his eagerness to secure a strong result. His race ended when a fractured oil pipe led to engine failure on the 41st lap.

"It's disappointing that I could not get to the chequered flag," he said, "because I had a good race up to that point. I can now say that running in F1 can be fun. I first thought overtaking was going to be impossible but now

"I realise that you can if you plan it - unlike in ChampCar races - and it's also very exciting. The car looks good and I'm confident we're going to show well through the season."

Button, meanwhile, is taking the longer-term view that Renault will get it right. "I'm still the second youngest driver out there," he concedes, "but I'm one of the most experienced now, which is a bit scary after just one year."

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