Jenson Button: 'I want to win – it's not about making lots of money'
Almost all his rivals have now upgraded their cars. So is Jenson Button feeling the pressure this weekend? He tells David Tremayne why he's never been happier, and why taking a pay cut to keep racing was an easy decision
Saturday 09 May 2009
Equanimity has always been Jenson Button's calling card. If this was The Right Stuff – and F1 has much in common with America's space race in the Fifties – he would be astronaut Gordon Cooper, always "maintaining an even strain" while seeking to go "higher, further and faster".
It's a serious stretch to recall a time in his entire career when he has lost the easygoing mien that, until 2009, the unwise took to be the look of a nice guy who was never going to win. And now when the crowds flock around him every time he comes into the circuit or tries to move around the paddock, it's admiration for a winner that they're expressing rather than sympathy for a popular but doomed racer.
But something's been bugging the 29-year-old since Bahrain, where he scored the best of his four grand prix victories and built the 12-point lead in the world championship that he carries into tomorrow's Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.
"A lot of people talked about our strategy in Bahrain winning us the race," says the man who hails from Frome in Somerset, the familiar smile still there as he seeks to make his point gently but firmly. "But while that was good, I think the key moves were me overtaking Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton on the first and second laps. Those first two laps were pivotal. Without that, I think we would have finished third. We definitely didn't have the quickest car there..." Yesterday and today, in practice and qualifying, Button has been assessing whether his Brawn team have maintained – perhaps even increased – the advantage they enjoyed at the start of the season, as his car, the BGP001, runs with its first major upgrade of the year.
"It is an important weekend. This is a big aero circuit," he says, meaning that aerodynamics play a very significant role in a car's behaviour. "We've got a new package here and we won't be getting another upgrade immediately, so this one needs to give us a good jump in lap time."
Brawn GP, the phoenix that rose earlier this year from the ashes of what used to be Honda Racing, has cut personnel and, now devoid of manufacturer backing, is an independent team that have set the F1 circus on their ear with their startling performances. But money is tight, sufficiently so that new components are no longer taken for granted. Button is the first to admit that, by Bahrain, his four-race-old machine was looking a little jaded.
"If you saw our car before the start of the last race," he says affectionately, "she was looking a bit tired. We didn't have any new parts. And she was stone-chipped to hell."
He has every reason to regard the BGP001 fondly, for it is the greatest car he has driven in a career that promised so much back in 2000 when he bounced straight into F1 from Formula Three and promptly showed fancied team-mate Ralf Schumacher how to drive a BMW-engined Williams properly.
"We have to hope what we have is enough to put ourselves in front of the Red Bulls by a small amount," he said yesterday, noting the only team to have beaten Brawn thus far in 2009, "because they are improving all the time."
His aggression at the start and at the end of the opening lap were what won him the race in Bahrain – aggression that, it must be admitted, his detractors never believed he possessed in comparison with, say, the Finnish hard case Kimi Raikkonen, or even his fellow countryman Lewis Hamilton. And he is adamant that it must remain the key.
"You have to be aggressive at this point in the season – you cannot settle for second or third place right now. You can't afford to play it safe. I've not experienced it before, but there is such a small difference between what you earn for first and second place, just two points. That's a bit frustrating. And it only takes a retirement, an engine failure or whatever, and 12 points are gone..."
A year ago – even three months ago when he still didn't know if he had a career left in F1 – Button admits he would only have dreamt of his current situation, as his Honda trudged around at the back of the field. After that first year with Williams, inter-team politics had obliged Sir Frank Williams to hire him out to Renault. Schumacher was still under contract, and highly rated IndyCar racer Juan Pablo Montoya was incoming. Privately, Williams has admitted that letting Button go to Renault was a major error of judgement.
Button's years there were unhappy, blighted by a poor relationship with the managing director Flavio Briatore who believed more in the Spanish rookie Fernando Alonso, who replaced him for 2003. Button switched to BAR Honda and, in 2004, enjoyed a great revival which saw him finish third behind dominant Ferrari drivers Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello in the championship.
But from 2005 things meandered downhill again as the team principal David Richards departed and, under the Honda badge from 2006, the team lost their way. Only a beautifully driven but slightly fortunate first victory in Hungary in 2006 stopped his career nosediving completely.
By 2008 the world had largely lost interest in the man with racing in his blood – his father John was a rallycross driver in the 70s – whose mantle as top Brit had passed to Lewis Hamilton. But only on Thursday no less a luminary than Alonso revealed that his 2009 performances have come as no surprise to his peers.
"I don't think Jenson was the worst driver last year when he was fighting for the last positions, because he'd been quite competitive throughout his career and in 2004 he was always fighting for podium finishes, finishing third in the World Championship," the Spaniard said. "So Jenson has always been competitive. This year, finally, he has the right car and he's proving that he's also able to fight for race wins and championships. I'm happy for him. We all know that Formula One is about the whole package: the team, the car, the driver, the engineers, luck. Many factors can help you win a race or win a championship. We all respect each other here. I think between us, we are all good drivers, we are all competitive people and sometimes we know that some of us have the right car and some of us have problems, and you need to work hard to make your car or your team competitive enough to win championships."
Not many drivers put their money where their mouth is to achieve that, but Button did so literally, volunteering to take a pay cut of at least 50 per cent to make sure of driving a car in which he totally believed.
"To me it was a case of everyone having to sacrifice certain things as we tried to save the team," Button said. "I wanted to go racing. That was always the most important thing for me. It isn't always about the money. I love racing, and I didn't start out planning a career in F1 so I could make pots of it. I wanted to race and to win, and I always believed, from what I had seen of the car, that this team would give me the best chance of that this year.
"Sure, there were times before Australia when I wondered if I had done the right thing, but I knew that we had a car that was going to be competitive and I wanted to be in it. It was worth all the risk."
Now, reincarnated as Jenson Button, world championship leader rather than Jenson Button, the guy you felt embarrassed to interview because what the hell could he do but wait and pray for the right car to come along as he struggled and became increasingly forgotten, he talks of fighting for race wins with all the aplomb of the kid whose excellence in Formula Three first attracted Frank Williams's seasoned eye. It is, to be honest, one of the most uplifting things about F1, 2009 style.
"We don't have enough of a lead yet to think about the championship," he says. "You have to be fighting for the win in every race otherwise you don't have a chance of winning anything at the end of the season. We just have to take each race as it comes and be up there challenging for the win each time."
You watch the body language and listen to the timbre of his voice, and just know how much he relishes finally being in the position he has dreamed of for the past nine years.
Life and times of Jenson Button
Born 19 January 1980, Somerset
Height 6ft weight 70.5kg
First F1 race: 2000 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne. Button finished 21st.
First F1 win: 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix
*Son of John Button; renowned Rallycross driver of the 1970s
*Currently dating model Jessica Michibata
*Hobbies include mountain biking and body-boarding
*Finished his first season eighth in the Driver's Championship. His best result of the 2000 season was a fourth place in the German Grand Prix.
*Button has notched five pole position starts in his career, two of which he achieved this season.
*Has had 19 podium finishes throughout his career.
*Currently enjoying his best-ever season, winning three of the four races so far.
My other life: Cycling in the Monaco hills
"My father would tell you that I am his son, which means I was never going to enjoy tiddlywinks or stamp collecting. It might sound odd, but my relaxation is my training. I really love the running, swimming and cycling that I do in the hills around Monaco. Of course it's great for my fitness in the car, but I just get a buzz from the competitive aspect of it too. It's become something that is very important to me, and that I really enjoy doing."
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