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
Saturday 20 June 2009
"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."
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