There is one thing far worse in Formula One than being regarded as a forgotten man, as Jenson Button so nearly found out during a tough winter: not being there at all. He had to take more than a 50 per cent pay cut just to stay in the game, but as the circus gathers in Melbourne ahead of this weekend's season-opening Australian Grand Prix, the 29-year-old Englishman may just end up having the last laugh.
Button had just got back from a weekend in Lanzarote last December when his manager, Richard Goddard, rang with the bad news that Honda were pulling out of Formula One. He headed straight to the team's factory in Brackley and started dealing with an emotional fallout that affected 750 people – and their families – and left them all even more inter-reliant as the battle to survive began.
"To see the team was great for me, because it showed that they were all still focused and still doing a great job," he admitted to autosport.com. "In a way that helped me more than me helping them. It goes both ways, and I think I've showed to them that I am dedicated and focused to do the best job I can with this team."
Button did not look elsewhere for a ride, nor have a back-up plan. That was how much he believed in his team, enough to take that pay cut. "I think it is necessary for all the people that are involved to sacrifice certain things. I want to go racing and I am so happy that the team is on the grid as Brawn GP, and that is the most important thing for me. I love racing and this is the best place to be doing it.
"At certain times I wondered if I had done the right thing, but I knew that they had produced a car that was going to be competitive and I wanted to be in that car. I was willing to take the risk to be at Brawn GP.
"What would I do sat at home? I'm 29 years old, I'm still a kid in my eyes and I have got a lot to prove in Formula One. My aim is to be on the grid and prove I can win races with Brawn GP. I think there is a good possibility of that."
If that happens, Button could regain the status Lewis Hamilton snatched from him as the leading Briton. It's not something about which he has ever been stressed. So much of Formula One driving is about getting the right equipment, and it is deeply ironic that, just as the situation seemed to be its darkest, Button finds himself in the new Brawn car that has been setting race tracks afire since the moment it first turned a wheel in anger.
"I wouldn't say that in the last few years it all went a little bit stale, but when something happens like that it's like 'wow!' he admits. "It does become a fresh start and getting into an F1 car makes me feel like a kid again. It's so exciting. It feels like 2000 again, but with nine years' experience. It's the perfect position to be in. I have the hunger to achieve. We have produced a car that I think is competitive and is very different to the last two cars we've produced. So we all feel like kids again and you can see that from the smiles on people's faces. This has brought us that much closer together, and it is a great team to be part of at the moment."
When the 2008 Honda proved to be a lemon, the team switched the focus of their effort to the 2009 car to meet demanding new regulations. That is one reason why the Brawn has so stunned its opposition in testing that Felipe Massa, the Brazilian star who so narrowly lost out on last year's world title, was moved to describe them as beyond even Ferrari's reach.
The Mercedes-Benz engine that now powers the Brawn is significantly better than last year's Honda V8. And the team's aerodynamicists have reclaimed, it is said, 89 per cent of the downforce from 2008 that they lost through the new rules. Some might argue that they had the least to lose of all the teams, but you still get the picture. One area of the car, however, an innovative design of the diffuser which generates downforce at the rear end of the car, is expected to be the subject of protests later this week.
"I think it's a good package, considering how late in the day everything came together," Button said. "The package as a whole is working very well. There are obviously going to be issues and things that we need to solve, and things that aren't right. But I am very comfortable in the car and it reacts to changes, which is good.
"As long as we are quick it doesn't matter, and as long we have got enough money to finish the season," he continued, alluding to the team's new status as an independent. "I don't know ... it's more of a family when it is a private team. When it is a big corporation then it is fantastic for sure, because you have the resources. But being in a private team is really like being in a big family and that is going to help us I think, especially this season. We need to work together and we need to be friends, not just work buddies. I'm in a place that I'm very happy with and every time I wake up in the morning I'm so excited about getting in the car and moving forward. This is something that I haven't experienced in my career. I'm in a very nice position where I'm with a great team, I have a lot of experience and I'm excited about getting in a Formula One car.
"Sometimes in the past that hasn't been the case, and sometimes that has been because we haven't produced a good car. But having the break and thinking, 'Wow, I might not be racing in 2009,' was a real wake-up call.
"There are certain things that are a little bit difficult for us because we didn't plan to have this engine in the back of the car. Certain areas are not as good as in other teams, but we started this car very early and we have produced one that is competitive. And watching everyone testing, we are looking at the cars and seeing that certain parts that we have tried on our car but which didn't make it go that much quicker, so ... that goes for a lot of the parts that are on other teams' cars which we couldn't find a route with and thus we took a different path which has worked for us. It's also a beautiful car, which is difficult to say with these wings, but this is definitely a beautiful car."
When a driver says that about a race car, it is usually because in his heart he knows it is going to be a winning race car.
On the Button: 'Real deal' or 'career wasted'?
"You can't go straight from kindergarten to university" (Jackie Stewart, on Button's F1 debut, 1999)
"He could be even greater than Michael Schumacher" (Button's manager, David Robertson, 2000)
"Jenson Button is the real deal. It just takes the right environment, the right time – he has the talent to win grands prix and challenge for championships" (David Coulthard, 2006)
"We know Jenson is capable of winning and it is not his fault that it has not come. There is absolutely no pressure on him. The subject is never mentioned within the team because we know we have to give him the equipment if he is going to have a chance" (Honda team principal Nick Fry, 2006)
"Jenson should have won more races, he has underperformed and that is down to him. He had the opportunity and he didn't take it – there won't be any more" (Nigel Mansell, 2007)
"Jenson Button seems to navigate himself into all the wrong places at the wrong time and it has been a career wasted by bad decisions" (Martin Brundle, 2009)
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