Jenson Button faces the sternest test of his standing as a Formula One star this season as Honda have made it clear that only wins will be satisfactory and new signing Rubens Barrichello is likely to be his most formidable team-mate. But yesterday in Barcelona the Briton, recently turned 26, was all smiles as he acquainted himself with the team's latest R106 challenger for the first time, a car that cost him around $25m (£14m) to drive. That is believed to be the figure he was obliged to pay Sir Frank Williams last August to be released from a contract to drive for his team in 2006.
Button has participated in more than 100 grands prix, with second place as his best result, and goes into the new season under no illusion that he must deliver if he is to justify a long-term deal with Honda thought to be worth almost $90m (£50m) and continue to be regarded as a genuine title contender in the future.
"I'm incredibly proud and excited to be part of the Honda Racing F1 Team and 2006 is going to be a very important year for all of us," he said before driving the car for the first time. "We've achieved a lot in winter testing with our concept car and I have seen first-hand the huge effort in Brackley and Tochigi over the past few months. I'm confident all the determination will be rewarded this year and I've done my part by working even harder on my fitness to ensure that I'm in the best possible shape for the season ahead. I can't wait for the first race in Bahrain."
When the season starts there on 12 March, the first thing Button must do is to prove himself faster than Barrichello, who left Ferrari at the end of 2005 after six seasons. He joined Ferrari in 2000, the year in which Button made his debut with the Williams-BMW team. Over the years, Barrichello was often regarded as Michael Schumacher's stooge, but on occasion he proved himself able to beat the multiple world champion. Button knows that he must maintain the upper hand over Barrichello if he is to maintain his leadership of the team and his credibility.
Yesterday, Button received a timely boost from Honda's sporting director, former Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran, who said he was in the same category as 2005 title contestants, Renault's champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen. He even compared him favourably to quadruple champion Alain Prost, a driver renowned for the smoothness of his touch.
"I am that much of a fan of his," de Ferran said. "I recently went to a test in Jerez and Jenson was driving... and this guy has such a fine touch, his driving style to me is fantastic. I cannot tell you how difficult it is to drive like Jenson drives. It's difficult to make it look as easy as he makes it look. I have no reason to be measured with my compliments."