Old head on the boy racer

British Grand Prix: Button, the new idol of the track, lets the hype sweep by and focuses on the road ahead
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The Independent Online

How about an eight-inch Formula One figurine of Jenson Button, "superbly sculpted, finely detailed"? Limited edition of 500. Swoop now on this special Easter offer, only £79.50 plus postage and packing. Or perhaps you would prefer the official Jenson Button mobile phone, ownership of which comes with a year's membership of the newly-launched Jenson Button fan club.

Or possibly some of Jenson's new line of sports clothing, available this weekend from Silverstone's marketing outlets, provided you are prepared to struggle through thigh-high mud to get to the shop.

Over the past few days Jenson Button has been called the Michael Owen of motor racing and compared to the Spice Girls. Yet here is someone who has yet to score against Argentina and what he really, really wants is urgently to gain more experience on the Grand Prix circuit.

Just as Wimbledon develops a severe case of Henmania every summer, motor racing in Britain is coming out in a Buttonmania fever, directed at a 20-year-old competing today in only his fourth Formula One race. The BMW-Williams driver is open, friendly, likeable and, fortunately, mature for his age. Just as well, since he has already created the sort of page-one yardage more usually reserved for British F1 stars who have won a Grand Prix or got themselves killed.

The Somerset-born Jenson, possessed of bright eyes and a ready smile, will need those broad shoulders of his to bear what has already burgeoned into a crushing weight of expectation.

After qualifying in sixth place yesterday alongside his hero, Michael Schumacher, Button summed up his hopes for the season thus: "I just want to keep learning the circuits. Every mile, every kilometre, I do, I learn something. The rest of the year is going to be a learning process for me." As for Buttonmania, he said: "It's my job to keep the focus on the driving, that's what's most important to me. I want to do well here because this is my home Grand Prix in front of friends, family and the British fans, but I have to think of it as another race on the calendar."

Button also expressed the hope of more points coming his way to add to the one he collected at the Brazilian Grand Prix last month, which put him into the record books as the youngest F1 driver to do so. Though not the youngest ever to compete. That honour belongs to the New Zealand 19-year-old Mike Thackwell, who managed one race, Montreal, in 1980. That statistic apart, most of the youngest-ever honours have been mopped up by Button.

Having been bought a kart by his rallycross-driver father, John, at eight, Jenson won his very first race. Aged nine, he won the British Super Prix and, the following year, the British Cadet Championship. European and world honours followed and when, two years ago, Button moved up to the Formula Ford classification he landed the British title in his first year and was European runner-up. Last year the lad who has a Ferrari and an "office" BMW in his garage but is still too young to hire a car in Europe graduated to Formula Three, finished third in the standings and was runner-up at Silverstone. "I'd settle for that again on Sunday," he pointed out.

Having once needed to scrounge petrol money to get back from a race in Scotland, the Buttons looked around two years ago for management backing and found David Robertson, a streetwise man with sons in racing, and Harald Huysman, a retired Norwegian F3 driver who had opened a kart track in Oslo. These two put their faith and about £200,000 into Button and have been rewarded beyond their dreams.

The reputation of a young man being compared to Ayrton Senna as a karting genius filtered through to the F1 world and last winter both McLaren and the four-time world champion Alain Prost invited Button to try out for their team. Both were impressed, but Button went on to test for Sir Frank Williams, in need of a second driver to Ralf Schumacher for the 2000 season.

Pitched into a run-off against the much-touted Brazilian Bruno Junqueira, Button got the job, to his astonishment. Williams, possibly reflecting on his failure in 1983 to sign up the young Senna, had no hesitation this time and last week emphasised that belief: "Jenson has exceeded all our expectations so far this season. He is remarkably mature for a20-year-old."

Button's name is in the best tradition of F1's lavish monikers, but father John insists this was not his intention. "My wife picked the names for Jenson's older sisters, Natasha, Samantha and Tanya, so when we had a son I insisted on choosing the name, after a rallycross friend, Erling Jensen. But I didn't want it to be the same spelling because everybody would have thought we named him after the car, which would have been a bit sad, so I put an 'o' into it."

Young Button suffered teasing at school and was awarded nicknames like Jennifer and Genitals. Now, he says, "Most people call me Jense." There are also those who call him too inexperienced to be handling the big-boys' racing car. Jackie Stewart commented, "You can't go straight from kindergarten to university." Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion, shares Stewart's misgivings. "I'm not sure Button knows what he's getting himself into. Formula One is about 10 times more physical than what he's used to."

Michael Schumacher is a supporter. "If he is good and mature enough, his age is not a problem at all," said the 2000 championship leader. Prost agrees: "On the basis of the test he did for us, I think Button is something very special."

Having taken on board a personal physio, Stewart Wild, to help him develop the right muscles for F1 racing, Jenson said, "It is up to me to prove those who doubt me wrong. Getting a drive with BMW-Williams is such an achievement for me. I don't think anyone can understand how much I am looking forward to this race and the season ahead.

"We must expect an uphill task since we are a new package. Our aim in 2000 is to compete in the mid-field and finish races. Given that we scored points in the opening two Grands Prix, I think we have done a good job so far."

The promotional and corporate deals being struck for Jenson have caused muttering in some motor-racing circles. Patrick Head, technical director of the BMW-Williams set-up, emphasised: "It's certainly not driven by us," dismissing it as "all a little unfortunate and driven by hype".

But Button is the new British name who has excited media attention, and his management man, Huysman, insists he is mature enough to cope with the double demands of racing and sponsorship commitments. "I am a little frustrated that people don't realise Jenson has 12 years of racing behind him and has already handled enormous pressure.

"People have said we shouldn't launch a clothing line after only three races but we are very comfortable with it. We started a new internet site on 11 March and Jenson has already had close to a million visitors. There is an enormous demand for his T-shirts and his fan club was launched a week ago. Yet some professional people say we should be doing even more for him."

Jenson's parents are divorced and he lives in Bicester with his father, who admits: "I do worry about some of the hype. Everything has happened so fast and I am a bit shattered by it all, but he seems to be coping with it."

Indeed he does. For someone who failed his driving test first time round, Jenson Button is not doing badly. Just look at those figurines.

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