Just how good is Jenson Button?

He's won six GPs this year, but some say it's all down to the car. David Tremayne asks Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell and Jackie Stewart for their verdicts

"Dad, I'm a Formula One driver!"


With those words, in the last week of January 2000, a 20-year-old kid from Frome called Jenson Button kicked off a career that, despite huge promise in the junior racing formulae, did not bear the fruit of victory until August 2006.

That was the day that Sir Frank Williams finally announced the result of a shootout between the English prodigy and upcoming Brazilian Bruno Junqueira.

It seemed a close-run thing. In truth, having been persuaded by Button's management to give him a try, all of his subsequent outings in one of the championship-winning team's cars were conducted purely to see if there was a reason why they shouldn't sign him. Button was so smooth, so fast, so assured, that the decision had virtually made itself from day one, and the ultra-conservative Williams and partner Patrick Head simply needed to convince themselves that opting for an untried young rookie would work.

It did. That year Button outqualified and outraced vaunted team-mate Ralf Schumacher on several occasions, most notably the fast tracks such as Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps and Suzuka. But Williams had the IndyCar star Juan Pablo Montoya incoming for 2001 and were obliged to farm Button out to Renault, where he failed to gel with Flavio Briatore, who preferred fellow rookie Fernando Alonso. Button's career stalled, revived partly with BAR Honda in 2004 when he took his first pole position and ended the year third behind the dominant Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. But then a series of duff Hondas all but killed his prospects, a well-driven victory in Hungary in 2006 notwithstanding.

This time last year, he was going nowhere. It seemed that he was destined never to unlock the door to victory. If he could not find the key, Button was not a Nigel Mansell, a man who could physically kick it open instead, nor an Alain Prost, who might deftly be able to pick the lock. Nor, even, an Ayrton Senna who might ease it open with the edge of a credit card.

Back then he was seen as a fast stylist who didn't have that final edge to become a winner, let alone a champion.

How times change, when you get a car to do your talent justice.

"He is the best in the business now and that car looks just amazing," 1992 champion Mansell told autosport.com. "I mean, the balance of that car... I was watching it at Monaco and I said to my son Greg, 'There are some awesome cars I have driven in the past, but I think that is one that goes into the history books as straight-out-of-the-box magical'."

Mansell, who like Button, took time to find that elusive key, added: "The great thing is that he served a very long apprenticeship and now it's coming together. The thing that is really good for him, and I congratulate him on, is that he is not letting this go, he is staying focused. He is more focused than I have ever seen him and better than ever. It's his championship, there is no way that anybody can come back at him. The only thing that can go wrong now is they have a really bad run of reliability, but I don't see that happening."

"Jenson has been in F1 quite some time and there were times he could have broken through," 1996 champion Damon Hill said. "Now he has and he is completely relaxed about it and loving every minute.

"Everyone tries to be an exception to the rule when they come into F1, but I don't think there are any. There are some exceptional drivers, however, and Jenson is one of them. So is Lewis [Hamilton]. You can lose that sparkle when things get hard, but Jenson has got it back and is filling up again."

Sir Jackie Stewart compared Button's style with that of Jim Clark and Prost, but is cautious in suggesting where he fits in the overall scheme of things.

"What he's done is exceptional," Stewart said yesterday. "He has done everything so far with great maturity, though wisdom might be a better word. He has come of age. Now he has accumulated experience. What he has done this year is to put that experience together with the knowledge that he gathered in the years when he didn't have everything he needed, mostly in terms of machinery, to satisfy the expectations people had of him. Now, at 29, he has the right car and is able to exercise the knowledge with that wisdom. You can't have knowledge alone without wisdom. And he is driving so well. He is not overdriving the car, and out of it he says the right things, not just politically correct things.

"How often have we seen him off the road? Whereas even when he was leading the world championship and had a car advantage, Michael Schumacher was off the road every weekend. Not Jenson."

But despite the tremendous impression that Button has made with six wins from the seven races so far in 2009, Stewart adds: "It's still too early to say where he belongs in the overall perspective.

"When I was winning everything, or Nigel [Mansell] or Damon [Hill] were winning everything, everybody wanted to talk about us being the best thing ever, better than Fangio, or Prost or Senna or whoever. But you can't say any of that.

"We still have to wait and see, but right now he is the best of his time, and that is the best he can aim for.

"His style is most reminiscent of Prost's. I never saw a smoother driver in the modern era. He drove like Jim Clark did, or like I did. Michael never did, even though he had what you might term engineering dominance. Alain never made any sudden hand movements on the wheel, and Jenson is just the same.

"And he is coping very well with the extra expectation. I haven't seen anything I haven't liked or a weakness in what he has been doing."

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'