I could have been as good as Button says former team-mate

Derek Hayes hasn't set foot on a race track in over five years; indeed the closest he gets now is occasionally tuning in to Formula One on TV.

But as he watched Jenson Button being crowned F1 World champion, Hayes could have been forgiven for dreaming of what might have been.

There was a time a decade or so ago when you would have had difficulty squeezing a cigarette paper between them. They were team-mates but also fierce rivals, two young hopefuls on motor racing’s slippery ladder.

But as Button took the plaudits as Britain's 10th F1 champion in Abu Dhabi at the weekend, Hayes has severed all links with racing and now helps to run the family's caravan parks and leisure homes business based at Dungannon.

“Jenson and I spent our first real Formula Ford season together with Haywood Racing,” recalls Hayes. “I beat him to win the European championship and he beat me to win the British championship.

“We had a sort-of decider at the Brands Hatch Festival, which was regarded as the Formula Ford World championship, and I was leading him in the semi-final when a rose joint broke in the suspension of my car.

“And no, contrary to rumour at the time, Jenson didn't hit me — it just broke and he went on to win the Festival.”

The year was 1998 and Hayes was 19, Button 18. They were two impressive newcomers on the racing stage.

But whereas Button had graduated to Formula Ford via a successful kart career, Hayes had stepped straight into a racing car at the Kirkistown circuit in Co Down little more than a year earlier.

He was a natural and quickly headed for England where he found himself paired with Button in the Haywood team. In qualifying for their first race they were separated by 3000ths of a second!

And so began a battle which would see them dominate Formula Ford racing in Britain and on the continent, Hayes claiming the European title and Button becoming British champion.

But then their careers separated, Button moving straight to Formula Three and Hayes, after winning the Palmer-Audi Winter series, opted to stick with the P-A championship in Britain and in Europe the following year.

Despite being a consistent front-runner, and winning twice, he says that was a mistake, sending his career off at a tangent from which it never fully recovered.

He did make it to F3 in 2001, and led the British championship at the halfway point, but lost out in the end to Takumo Sato and Anthony Davidson, two more drivers who would later graduate to F1, while Hayes eventually found himself in America racing the monster saloon cars of NASCAR on oval circuits.

He came close to landing a seat with Eddie Cheever's Red Bull Indy Racing League team, the drive eventually going to Tomas Scheckter, and beaten by the relentless pursuit of budgets, he gave up at the end of 2004 and came home to work in the family business.

He has regrets, of course, but says it is all about making the right choices at the right time.

“I probably made some bad choices but I was young and you do what you think is right at the time,” he says.

“But being able to drive quickly is only 50 per cent of what you need. You need money, lots of it, and the right contacts. I don't know about the money side of it but Jenson and his father John had the right contacts.

“I remember meeting him at Jerez after his first F3 season — I think he finished third — and we both had tests with the Super Nova team. Again there was nothing between us. I was quicker on old tyres, he put on new tyres and beat me.

“But a couple of weeks later he got a test with the Williams F1 team and the rest is history. It has taken him a while but now he's the World champion.

“Don't get me wrong. Jenson is a great driver and a worthy champion but do I think I could have achieved what he has achieved given the opportunity? Without being conceited I would have to say yes.

“We were very similar, both consistently fast and we didn't crash a lot. But it takes more than ability, as Adam Carroll is finding out.

“He's in a similar position to the one I was in back in 2001/02 and like me it is probably now or never for him.

“There are so many good drivers out there with big sponsorship packages, the kind of money you can never find in Ireland or the UK, and it is money that opens doors.

“In the three or four year period when I was really ambitious and really pushing to climb the ladder I was racing against a fantastic crop of drivers.

“Apart from Button, Sato and Davidson, there were drivers like Andy Priaulx, who has gone on to win two World touring car championships; Gary Paffett, who drives for Mercedes in the DTM in Germany; Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Weldon; Marcos Ambrose who is a big NASCAR star now; and Heikki Kovalainen, Lewis Hamilton's team-mate at McLaren.

“On my day I was beating all of them but in motor racing that isn't enough. You need to get the right breaks and make the right decisions.

“It didn't happen for me but well done Jenson — I hope you still remember when you were rubbing wheels with the lad from Dungannon!”

Sourced from: The Belfast Telegraph

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