Jenson Button is currently in his 12th season in Formula 1 and the 2009 world champion will reach the 200 race landmark this weekend...
Before i delve into Button's career lets attempt to clear up why the McLaren driver considers this weekend to be his 200th Grand Prix. Since he made his debut in 2000 there have been 203 Formula 1 races (up to the 2011 German Grand Prix). BAR's two race ban for an illegal secondary fuel tank takes Button's tally down to 201. His practice crash at Monaco in 2003 left him concussed and he was forced to sit it out. So that's 200 going into this weekend. The contentious issue for the F1 statisticians is the 2005 USA Grand Prix. Button qualified for the race and lined up on the grid but at the end of the formation lap he, along with 13 other cars, pulled into the pits and went no further in the grand prix after safety concerns over tyres. Some class that as a race he didn't start. However the FIA/FOM classifications list Button as a retirement in the race so technically you could argue that he was part of the race. So depending on your viewpoint either last weekends German Grand Prix or this weekends Hungarian Grand Prix is Button's 200th in F1. It seems he is going for this weekend. Now lets move on before i bore you all into closing this page!
After a test for McLaren as part of the reward for winning the BRDC young driver award in 1998 and then with Prost in 1999 where he outpaced the experienced French driver Jean Alesi, Button's opportunity for a race drive came in 2000 with Williams. However he didn't get the seat easy as Jenson explains in these words taken from his official website:
We started at Jerez and moved on to Barcelona, and it was only in Barcelona that I realised Bruno Junqueira and I were battling for a race seat alongside Ralf Schumacher.
One of the first things I had to do when I got to Barcelona was an exam about the engineering side of the sport. All Williams’ drivers have to do this and I knew that I would be absolutely useless because I had no engineering experience at that time! Anyway, I didn't get many laps because we had a lot of mechanical problems, but I had at least driven the circuit in an F1 car so I was familiar with it. I ended the day 0.2s quicker than Bruno.
On the day of the car launch we still didn't know who had got the drive. We both had to do a photoshoot with the car and Ralf, and we then got called up to see Frank individually. When I walked into Frank's office, he looked up and smiled. He asked me to sit down and then he told me I had the drive alongside Ralf. I just said "thank you Frank". The relief was huge.
One hour later I was doing a press conference in front of the whole world which ended up on the front page of all the newspapers.
His debut season would feature glimpses of impressive raw speed. Being in a car that could compete for points allowed Button to show himself to the F1 world but this brought its own pressures. Williams were pleased with how he conducted himself but a dilemma was looming. The team had been trying to get Juan Pablo Montoya to join the team and after failing to get him for 2000 the Columbian was signed for 2001. Williams partnership with BMW stipulated that one of the drivers had to be a German so Ralf Schumacher's seat was safe. This left Button out of a drive but Williams were keen to have him involved in the future so loaned him to Benetton on a two season deal. It would prove to be a difficult time as the car was uncompetitive and the British driver came under public fire from team principal Flavio Briatore. He stayed on for 2002 and things improved but Button again found himself unseated by an up and coming driver as Fernando Alonso moved up from his test role with the team to replace him in 2003.
British American Racing (BAR) was the next destination for Button as he went up against former world champion Jacques Villeneuve. There was some tension early on between the pair but things would improve through the season. 2004 would see this upward curve continue as BAR would be consistently the second best team in the sport. Unfortunately for Button Ferrari had a huge dominance so whilst the podium duck was broken in Malaysia the path to victory for him and his fellow drivers was blocked by Michael Schumacher. The new tyre rules introduced for 2005 only seem to hurt BAR and they found themselves overtaken by the likes of Renault and McLaren. Off the track things had become messy. An attempt to get out of his BAR deal and return to Williams was foiled in 2004 and after signing a pre-contract deal with the Grove based team he had a change of heart. Ultimately Button got his way and remained where he was but at a hefty cost as Williams were paid £18m for not getting the driver they wanted.
Honda took over BAR and the start of 2006 was a case of unfulfilled promise as good situations were not always maximised. As Renault and Ferrari battled for the championship Honda became the third fastest team and in the second half of the season Button scored more points than anyone else. The icing on the cake was in Budapest where Button took a thrilling first win of his career, coming through from 14th on the grid in mixed conditions to take the chequered flag in first.
Read more about Button's first win in Formula 1 here
So going into 2007 Button carried a lot of confidence and momentum but it would turn into a disaster as the car was very uncompetitive. Honda had made some staff changes and the main aerodynamicist would even admit in public that he was struggling with the role and that his main background was motorcycles where aerodynamics are not very important... 2008 was another year of suffering as Button found himself driving at the back end of the grid. Ross Brawn joined the team and sought to improve things but it was difficult to do so in a short term sense. With big regulation changes coming in 2009 Honda gave up the development chase early in the season and eyed up the chance of moving up the order with the clean sheet of paper that the new rules would bring.
Confidence was abound at Brackley. They believed they had a top 3 car. Then it all went wrong with one bombshell from Japan. Honda were pulling the plug on F1 with immediate effect. Most of the seats on the grid were already filled. Button faced time on the sidelines. His career was in limbo. Eventually a deal was done. Honda helped set up Ross Brawn to take the team over. Engine manufacturers offered their services to help the team survive. In late February the team finally got to test and after 5 laps Button described the car as "feeling nice" His engineer replied "Jenson, you are 7 tenths faster than anyone else" Of course that all came out months later but at the time fans speculated about the Brawn team. Did they really have a good car or were the fast times a bit of a publicity stunt in an attempt to attract sponsors to a team which was running a virtually bare car.
You all know what happened next. Button swept aside the field to take 6 wins in the opening half of the season. A rocky middle of the year was stabilised by some solid points finishes and in Brazil he came through from 14th to finish 5th with a series of sensational overtakes marking his race and the dream of the world championship was achieved. Some say that Button's success was simply down to a dominant car but i feel this is harsh. In the first half of the season he did have the best car but he made the most of it, maximising every opportunity. Very impressive and more so when you consider that for the previous two seasons he had been stuck in the lower reaches of the field so to all of a sudden be in contention for wins and delivering the goods was excellent and ultimately the foundation to the championship success. A factor that did play into his hands was the mixed up nature of the season as many teams had spells of good performance and some of the traditional heavyweights struggled to get to grips with the new specification of technical rules.
With mission accomplished it would have been easy for Button to rest on his laurels and become settled so his next move was one that caught me and many off guard as he signed at McLaren to pair up with Lewis Hamilton, the man many believed was the best in the sport. In a sense 2010 would see Button silence many critics despite eventually being edged out by Hamilton. Two early wins in Australia and China showed off his talent in mixed conditions but McLaren were unable to keep up with Ferrari and Red Bull and in the second half of the season fell away slightly though Button almost pulled off victory at Monza and wowed fans early on in the rain at Spa with many overtakes as he read the conditions better. Just a month ago we got more evidence of Button's brilliant feel for grip in mixed conditions as he recovered from two collisions and a drive through penalty to take a breathtaking win after chasing down Sebastian Vettel on the last lap. However Vettel's dominance and retirements in the last two races for Button means a second title is a distant dream for this season.
Comparing drivers is a difficult job and of course the margins involved are so small that it can be harsh to rate drivers as good and bad as they all deserve our respect. For me Alonso and Hamilton are the best in the sport and Vettel is quickly moving up towards that level. For me Button is in the next tier. He doesn't always pull out the raw pace in qualifying and sometimes struggles if the setup isn't totally to his liking. However his racecraft is excellent and his composure and clear thinking when strategy comes into play is supreme. His classiness in racing wheel to wheel has been shown many times including many overtakes in the second half of 2009 as well as two first lap battles with Robert Kubica at Valencia and Belgium in 2010. Button has previously talked about retiring if he won another title but recently said he could go on for another 4 years. I can see him staying at McLaren and a 2012 deal should be a formality. However he has shown he's not afraid of new challenges but apart from maybe an opening at Ferrari i think he would stick with the Woking based team. Can he win another title? Well up against Hamilton it will be difficult but he has shown that he can beat the 2008 world champion and if McLaren deliver a better car then it can't be ruled out. I certainly feel this new style of racing in F1 these past couple of years is more to Button's liking. Sunday will be race 200 and i expect Jenson to race on for a few more years yet. The young boy from 2000 has matured greatly into a champion and ambassador of British sport and remains as hungry as ever for success.