Party off as Button sent to back of class

British Grand Prix: Monaco crash has given British racer fresh perspective as suspension problem dashes hopes

Jenson Button is feeling decidedly pleased with himself. He has just recorded the fastest track time. OK, so it was on a giant Scalextric track at last weekend's Goodwood Festival of Speed, where we meet. But what the hell. As a young man who, from the moment he stood as an awestruck 14-year-old at Silverstone's Copse Corner and witnessed Damon Hill triumph in the 1994 British Grand Prix, knew that his destiny was to be a grand prix driver, he has savoured successes all along the way. Even those provided by miniature cars operated with plastic controllers.

This, after a week of testing in Spain, is about as relaxing as it gets in an F1 driver's summer. And yesterday reality struck cruelly as his hopes of a maiden podium finish in the British Grand Prix were all but ruined by suspension problems during qualifying at Silverstone. The BAR-Honda driver, who had promised a "mega-party" if he had taken a top-three spot, will line up last on the grid.

Button drifted too wide at the Becketts complex suffering suspension damage as he rode the kerbs and was forced to park up on the grass during a miserable qualifying session for the home hopefuls. Yet it is remarkable to calculate that, as a member of that trio of young British sporting Js - Jenson, golfer Justin (Rose) and cricketer James (Anderson) of whom so much is expected - he has reached such a positionin the sport only nine years after that first inspirational visit to the home of the British Grand Prix.

The phlegmatic Button relishes every Silverstone experience, not least because it contains what he believes is the most exacting geography in grand prix racing: "As you gain experience, the car begins to feel slower, because you've got more time to think, and that's what really does make a good driver," he says.

"But there's one corner in F1 that never slows down, and that's Becketts. You're going down through the gears and it's quick left, quick right, quick left. It's the most amazing feeling." And sometimes a sinking feeling.

Button's proximity to the podium on more than one occasion - notably in Malaysia last year, when he finished fourth after being third, with Michael Schumacher 12 seconds behind him, only for his suspension to fail on the last lap - entitles him to believe that the ultimate experience is not that far away.

"I've never been in a winning team, and this year the car's good, but we're not in a position to win yet," he says. "We're improving and the reliability's getting better, but we're not getting the best out of our tyres at the moment. It'll be very difficult to get on the podium this season. I think that BAR are a team who will be challenging for the title, maybe not next year, but in the following years. I'm determined to get there, but I'm not going to make myself mad over it."

Had he stood back and reflected on what he had achieved after only three full seasons? "It's difficult, because you don't really get any time to think about it," he says. "It's only when you get to the winter or when you've got nothing to do, like when you're lying in a hospital bed after a crash. That's when it hits you how lucky you are to be achieving your goals and doing something you love."

His acquaintance with a hospital came at the end of May, following a 180mph disagreement with a barrier at Monaco in a practice session before qualifying. Yet, despite being rendered unconscious by the collision, he maintains an insouciant view of the memory. "It's probably the worst corner in Formula One to have an accident and the hardest wall to hit, but I've proved how strong and safe these cars and circuits are," he says. "Just call me a crash-test dummy - they should put a yellow cross on my forehead!"

He is joined by his girlfriend of three years, Louise. Together, they are Britain's second most glittering sporting couple, after Posh and Becks. But with more class. The gossip columns have hinted at marriage. I ask him, feeling like the lady fromHello!, whether there is any truth in that. "Mostly likely," he says. "That's what we all want to do, isn't it? Get married and have a family. That would be great, but we're very happy at the moment."

Already, at 23, Button earns a reported £4m a year and owns prestigious properties in Weybridge, Surrey, and Monaco. Within the Principality's harbour his boat is moored - £1.2m-worth of eight-berther named Little Missy. It is a lifestyle many would envy, you suggest. "I think it's driving an F1 car that most guys would want to do most," he says. "Everyone likes a rush, when your stomach feels like it's hanging out the back of you. It's just amazing and it still gives me a buzz."

Close friends are few in F1, given the intense competition. Among those with whom he does socialise is his best friend in F1, "DC" as he refers to him, or David Coulthard as we do. Possibly not yet his BAR team-mate, the 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, though? At the start of the season the Briton and the Canadian were embroiled in an unseemly spat. "I get on with Jacques now," says Button. "We had a barbecue at the last grand prix and we're getting on fine."

Button tends to concur with the words of a man who won his first British Grand Prix nearly half a century ago. "Don't take anything for granted," Stirling Moss once advised the young contender. "Stay relaxed, focused and let your ability take you as far as you want to go."

One suspects that, ultimately, it could be to emulate the very best of British.

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