Brought to you by TJ13 reporters Adam Macdonald and Mattpt55
A “lazy-playboy”, “the stuff of any team owner’s wildest dreams” and “remarkably mature and definitely a star of the future” were what Jenson was described as during his early career. TJ13 takes a look at how 15 years on from that debut in Melbourne, 2000, his career has unfolded. (Those who are more musically minded will have spotted the Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat reference in the title)
A longstanding theory of many is that Button fails to develop a car well, as he requires some guidance in this department profiting from a consistent teammate. Other drivers have a reputation of working well with engineers to develop a car that suits their needs, like Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel, who are much happier without the interference of a teammate. Having assessed his career, there is no questioning his talent, but whether he develops a car well still remains a contentious issue.
Being thrust into the spotlight is somewhat difficult to take for almost anybody. The “boy wonder” examples can be taken from many walks of life, for example: Justin Bieber, Wayne Rooney, Michael Jackson, etc. Therefore, getting the Williams’ drive at the tender age of 20 was never going to be easy – even if the plaudits were raining in on him before you had even taken to the circuit.
Partnering Ralf Schumacher for 2000, he enjoyed some success combined with intermittent faults in performance. A 6th place finish in Brazil, the second race of the year, made him (at the time) the youngest ever points scorer in the sport. He finished with 12 points in 8th position, half that of his German teammate who finished in 5th. As feared by many, he had only been signed as a stopgap before Williams could sign Juan Pablo Montoya. It was announced he would be replaced by the upcoming Columbian midway through the season.
Held at arm’s length
As Williams retained the Frome fast man effectively on speed dial should his services ever be needed, he was sent out ‘on-loan’ to the former champions Benetton. In an uncompetitive car, against strong opposition from Italian Giancarlo Fischella, he limped home to 17th in the WDC with just 2 points to show for his 2001 efforts. Any driver who did the same nowadays in their second season in the sport would surely be questioned as to whether they should remain in their current seat (i.e. Esteban Gutierrez).
2002 saw the team rebranded as Renault F1, after the French manufacturer had bought out the Enstone based team during the 2001 season. He partnered Jarno Trulli for the year, for the first time in his F1 career outscoring a colleague. Even though he did so, he was replaced by some young talented Spanish bloke. Briatore responded to the criticism by saying, “time will tell if I am wrong.” 3 years later Alonso was a World Champion.
All BAR none
A 4th teammate in as many seasons in the sport as Button found himself at British American Racing, driving alongside Jacques Villeneuve. A frosty relationship developed as the Canadian 1997 WDC limped through until the Japanese GP, where he was replaced by Takuma Sato.
2004 saw him remain alongside his Japanese teammate as he enjoyed a strong year, with 10 podiums from 18 races. The Ferraris had run away with the Championship in the final year before the tyre rules changed, with Button taking a strong 3rd place finish. His first year with a consistent teammate and car and he finally started to show some of his previous promise.
A difficult start to the 2005 season saw him retire frequently after a poor showing in pre-season testing. Things had looked to be taking a turn for the better with a 3rd place finish at the San Marino GP, until a second fuel tank was found inside the main tank. When this was subsequently drained the car was 5.4kg underweight leaving the team as red faced as the cars.
The ban for two races meant Button and Sato only returned at the European Grand Prix. Crashing out at Montreal after having taken an impressive pole position as well as the forced withdrawal from the controversial USGP that year meant it took until race 10 of the season for BAR to score at all! However, after this he was consistent in his point scoring as he took 2 podiums in Germany and Belgium. A consistent teammate looked to be the way forward for Jenson.
Another year, another contract battle
For the second year in a row, the man from Frome was embroiled in a contract controversy as he entered talks with Frank Williams to get out of the “binding” pre-contract he had signed with them. Williams eventually agreed to release him from this agreement, but only in exchange for compensation to the tune of an estimated £18 million.
Honda were announced as the new owners of the team as they bought out BAR’s stake in the team, as Button’s Japanese teammate was replaced by the evergreen Rubens Barichello. At the time, Button said, “Honda buying the team is amazing news and really shows their commitment to winning the world championship.” How droll those words seem now!
Although the start of the year brought mixed results at best, the partnership with Barichello began to bear fruit with Button’s win in Hungary, his first in 113 starts. It was also the first victory by an Englishman (and by a British driver) since 1999’s win by everyone’s favourite SKY broadcaster, *ahem* Johnny Herbert, at the European Grand Prix (David Coulthard’s 2003 win is being roundly ignored since apparently Scotland will no longer be part of Britain). Button also came from 14th place to score his first victory, bettering Nigell Mansell’s 12th to 1st in 1989, also in Hungary.
Button would go on to outscore all other driver’s in the last 6 races of the year, demonstrating his ability to compete with the best when the car was set up to his liking and he had a teammate with whom he could work well alongside.
Barichello continued to partner Button for 2007-2008, which saw the rise of Hamilton in the UK. Meanwhile, Honda was working diligently to make the worst chassis possible to mate to their world class engines. This effort succeeded so well that Honda was able to fulfil the destiny of all Japanese manufacturers and have a reasonable excuse for dropping out after being grossly uncompetitive despite spending large buckets of money to win. Ostensibly, it was the global economic crisis, but in reality Honda had lost the plot and they knew it.
Phoenix from the ashes
Of course, 2009 brought Brawn GP into the picture and demonstrated that Honda should simply have hired Ross and set him loose with their development package, but instead they had sold the team outright and dumped their chance to break the curse of the Japanese manufacturer in the loo. Ross crucially chose to retain both drivers, though Jenson was reported to take a 50% pay cut as part of the deal. This, plus the double diffuser that Honda (and some reports say the defunct Super Aguri team) had developed enabled Button to take what might well have been the end of his career and turn it into his only WDC.
Brawn, always comfortable in the margins of the rulebook, developed a strategy that relied on maximum advantage in the early races to fend off the later development charge of his rivals, which he knew he could not match. And Button, with his smooth style and vast racecraft, turned out to be the perfect match to the car, winning 6 of the first 7 races and placing well enough in the rest to defend his lead.
Despite winning with Brawn, the newly anointed WDC chose to jump ship to McLaren in 2010, bringing to an end his most successful partnership with Barichello, and raising eyebrows as many in the paddock and press rated Hamilton a superior driver. Jenson quickly proved there was more than one way to win a race however, and despite finishing with fewer points over the season than his fellow Brit teammate, his results put paid to the doubters that felt he wouldn’t be able to compete.
Second to best
2011 was the year of driving dangerously for Hamilton, of course, and though his desire to repeatedly tango with Massa stands out to most, it was really the race in Canada that set the tone for the year. Button’s famous collision with Hamilton, and subsequent chasing down of Vettel put Lewis on the wrong foot, and his inability to recover and poor string of results confirmed Button as favoured driver at Mclaren. The final overtake of that race can be seen below. Finishing 2nd in the WDC that year, he showed his class against the utter might of the RBs on many an occasion.
If 2011 was the year that showed the world Hamilton’s weakness, 2012 would demonstrate to all why F1 is indeed a team sport. From Bahrain to Silverstone that year, Button’s results plummeted. An 18th, 9th, DNF, 16th, 8th and 10th respectively saw the most woeful results Button had endured since the awful days at Honda. What’s worse was the fact that Button himself was given all the resources necessary to develop the car to his liking, even at the expense of Hamilton who was doing quite well on the other side of the garage. Ultimately, set up information was shared from the Hamilton’s side of the garage and Button was able to reboot and move on, but since then questions about his ability to develop a car have followed him. Oddly, they seem to follow Hamilton as well, but in this instance clearly Lewis had it right.
Not that it mattered in any event, as Button had clearly won the race for hearts and minds at McLaren, so Lewis was off to the Silver Star to make a new life for himself and surprise many with his showing in the 2013 season.
Meanwhile, back at Woking, Button once again had been delivered a car that was virtually undriveable, and partnered with Perez, managed to make little progress throughout the season. Although he beat Perez soundly, his new team mate proved no help at all in developing the car, though he did provoke a few radio calls whenever he attempted to pass Button.
F1’s elder statesman
Going into 2014, Button is onto his 2nd team mate in as many years and a proper rookie at that, certainly not the most comforting situation for him. Also Whitmarsh, one of his biggest proponents, has been replaced by Bouillier, adding to the unknowns that he faces. The former prodigal son at Lotus, Romain Grosjean demonstrated his abilities towards the back end of last year. A poor show from Button could have Grosjean knocking on the door of the McLaren Technology Centre in the not too distant future.
With heads having already rolled for the debacle of 2013 and whispers about the speed of Magnussen pervading the paddock, all the weight of the world is on Jenson’s shoulders to help develop a winning car this year. As the oldest driver on the grid this year, the Woking team will be looking for Button to lead the side into battle. Of course, it won’t help his confidence much either that Ron Dennis will also be prowling about, adding his own particular brand of encouragement. Between the lingering questions from 2012 and the threat of a much faster and younger teammate, this could be the season that ultimately makes or breaks Button’s reputation in the history books. Should be fun – not that this season won’t be exciting enough already.