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How good is Button?

Jenson Button

Watch the moment Button won the title

By Mark Hughes
BBC F1 commentary box producer

Even now Jenson Button is the Formula 1 world champion, there are those questioning whether he is worthy of the crown.

Because he has been around F1 since 2000, a certain perception of him has built up - and people hate letting go of their preconceptions.

How can this guy they have never particularly rated suddenly be a world champion? How can a driver who took until his seventh season to even win a race really be mentioned in the same breath as such instant legends as Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton?

Very easily, actually.

As a breed, racing drivers are a laid-back lot. Year upon year of slowing down the action in their heads, of training their brains to take the emotion out of the multiple thousands of split-second decisions they make every time they get in the car, tends to lend them a languid air when not in action.

Jenson was the guy I wanted to be, the one we all wanted to be. He was the best - that was how he was seen

Lewis Hamilton

Button is extreme even by these standards, so serene on the surface that it has in the past led to questions about how much desire - an essential quality for a truly world-class racer - was within him.

Such doubts were completely misplaced as it turns out, just as other brickbats thrown at him over the years have been.

F1 is a sport dominated by the quality of the car. Which lucky driver gets his bum into one of the special cars is so reliant on preconceptions.

The "chosen ones" are channelled into the right seats, which give them the career momentum that keeps the perception on course. That starts from way earlier than F1. And the perception helps create the reality.

Early in his career, once he had established his devastating speed in karting as a kid, Button actually was a "chosen one". But it did not last.

Jenson Button

Button elated after world title win

Within the grass roots of the sport there was a buzz created by Button and his apparently effortless success. A few years behind him, a young kid called Lewis Hamilton used to look upon Button with awe.

"He was the guy I wanted to be, the one we all wanted to be," says Hamilton. "He was the best - that was how he was seen within karting." In time, so Hamilton would become another chosen one.

Button's reputation attracted him - through a third party - to David Robertson, a motor racing entrepreneur looking to invest in a talent he could take to F1.

So Button graduated to car racing as a 17-year-old in 1998 in the British Formula Ford championship. Naturally it was with one of the best teams. Why wouldn't it be? He duly won the championship and the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at the end of the year.

Momentum effortlessly maintained from karting into cars, just like his silky driving style converted his corner-entry momentum into lap time.

But you can fall off the ladder so quickly. Drivers climbing the greasy pole of motorsport have to pay their own way, and the tricky point comes when your financial backing fails to match up to the budget required of the next step.


Robertson had underwritten the Formula Ford programme but, to maintain that momentum and perception, a top Formula 3 drive was needed next - and the budget didn't quite stretch.

And so Button contested the 1999 British F3 championship with an under-performing Renault engine. He did brilliantly well to win the odd race and finish third in the championship.

That was the reality. The perception was different; he'd failed. How could he be one of the special ones? And he fell off the ladder.

A few years later, Hamilton would find himself in a similar situation.

He didn't win the title in his first year of F3 either. But he was by then being backed and managed by McLaren, who took a wonderfully enlightened long term view of their protege's career.

They simply had him do another year of F3, with the best team in the category - and at his second attempt he blitzed it. Hamilton remained on the ladder.

Button had no F1 team or big-time benefactor. He had Robertson taking a share in his future in exchange for his help.

John and Jenson Button
Button's father has been a constant - but discreet - presence in his career

But there was not necessarily a ready budget for a second year of F3 or a season of Formula 3000, the final step on the ladder before F1. They were now reliant upon grabbing opportunities as they presented themselves rather than having the luxury of dictating their own path.

Luckily, a timely opportunity did present itself in that the French element of the F3 team were in contact with the French Prost F1 team, raving about Button's ability. An F1 test was duly arranged and Button almost immediately went 0.5secs a lap faster than regular driver Jean Alesi.

The F1 jungle drums began to beat and Frank Williams - looking for a driver to replace the disappointing Alex Zanardi - had him in his car a week later.

In the space of a few weeks Button had gone from being uncertain about regaining his momentum in the junior categories to becoming an F1 driver.

His wonderful talent was frequently demonstrated in that rookie year, but the consistency borne of experience was missing. The reality was, he had arrived too soon. But he had no other realistic option - because he wasn't on the ladder.

So in comparing his career with someone like Hamilton's or Alonso's you are not comparing like with like.

Button arrived in F1 after a season in Formula Ford and another in F3. Hamilton arrived after five years of carefully controlled preparation by the best F1 team in the business.

Button is not therefore as reliable a performer as Hamilton or Alonso, but give him a well balanced car and he is devastating

Then there were the cars he spent his F1 career in. Hamilton won races in his first season, Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen did so in their first seasons with top teams. Button, in eight years of toil, never got into a car capable of winning races.

To those watching closely there were frequent tell-tales of the huge talent, but that doesn't cut it in a world where headline perception is all.

Button's playboy lifestyle in his early F1 career didn't fit well with the mores of the sport, either. That and the lack of track record saw him written off as a lightweight by those with no knowledge of his early career.

It took the fluke of circumstance that is Brawn Grand Prix to finally get him into a good car. In it, he won six of the first seven grands prix this season - a sequence that stands comparison with any of the sport's greats.

Irony of ironies, he was then accused of winning "only because of the car advantage". Which was to ignore the previous eight seasons when he'd been prevented from success by the car disadvantage - and that he was blitzing team-mate Rubens Barrichello in the same car.

Jenson Button
Button's laid-back demeanour belies his drive and determination

All of which is not to say that all of the criticism of Button is misplaced.

For someone of his immense gift, he is generally overly sensitive to a car's characteristics. He needs the car to be exactly right to have access to his full talent.

If the car is anything other than that, if it suffers from any measure of instability at the rear under braking or into the corner, then he is not good at improvising a different style.

When this happens, his various team-mates usually manage to go faster and it is probably not a coincidence that Button was clearly faster than Barrichello this year when the car was at its best, but the positions were reversed when its competitiveness dropped off.

Button is not therefore as reliable a performer as Hamilton or Alonso, who can always improvise some sort of performance from their cars, can always access most of what is there. But give him a well-balanced car and he is devastating.

There have been many less gifted world champions than Jenson Button. The length of time it has taken is nothing to do with lack of ability, everything to do with how the talent ladder of the motor racing system works - or doesn't.

Mark Hughes has been an F1 journalist for 10 years. He is the award-winning author of several books.

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see also
Brilliant Button clinches title
18 Oct 09 |  Formula 1
Brawn win title in debut F1 year
18 Oct 09 |  Formula 1
F1 salutes champion Button
18 Oct 09 |  Formula 1
Button's F1 career in photos
18 Oct 09 |  Formula 1
Brazilian Grand Prix as it happened
18 Oct 09 |  Formula 1

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