The Curious Case of Jenson Button

July 13, 2012 6:13 pm

Is Jenson Button headed in the wrong direction?

18th March 2012 – Jenson Button dominates the Australian Grand Prix to take the lead of the Formula One World Championship, finishing ahead of Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.

8th July 2012 – Jenson Button struggles to a 10th place finish in his home race, hanging on to the coat tails of Bruno Senna in his underpowered Williams car.

Less than four months have passed from the highs of Australia to the depths of despair at Silverstone, yet Jenson Button has plunged off the F1 radar faster than many thought possible.

Going on recent form, it’s hard to believe Jenson Button was once World Champion.

So what has gone wrong with the 2009 World Champion, and is there any way he can navigate his way back to the front of the elite in the world of motorsport?

Button, who entered Formula One as a fresh-faced nineteen year old back in 2000 has experienced his fair share of disappointment in his thirteen seasons in the top flight category of racing but has never faced a challenge such as the one he finds himself squaring up to this year.

Button made his F1 debut in 2000 – 12 years at the toughest pinnacle of motorsport may have taken its toll.

In his early years, Button was the epitome of British, or more particularly, English sport. He raced with the backing of the crowd and the hopes of a nation. He was good, yet never quite made it to the top level, never quite got to stand on the top step of that Formula One podium. Time and again the young Englishman from Frome in Somerset would do battle with the scarlet Ferrari of the legendary Michael Schumacher while at the wheel of an unreliable, underpowered and poorly-designed Honda badged machine, always giving his utmost but always coming off second best. Frequently he was getting the better of drivers such as Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Juan Pablo Montoya and Rubens Barrichello but someone else would always be in the way to deny Button his golden moment.

Eventually that golden moment came one dark gloomy weekend at the Hungaroring just outside the Hungarian capital of Budapest, where on the 6th August 2006 Jenson Button drove a spectacular race on a soaked circuit to enter the illustrious hall of fame with other Grand Prix winners. For just over an hour and a half that afternoon, Button found himself driving a car the equal of the title-winning Ferrari, Renault and Mclaren machines and showed to everyone in the motorsport world what he was capable of.

Yet another two years would pass before Button won again but when he did in March 2009, with the phoenix-like Brawn team risen from the ashes of the defunct Honda outfit, he claimed six victories which carried him to the accolade he had always dreamed of; in October that year at the Brazilian Grand Prix, Button was crowned Formula One World Champion, the best driver in the world.

Electing to enter the proverbial lion’s den, Button left what became the Mercedes team to join fellow Brit and media darling Lewis Hamilton at McLaren. The British dream team tackled 2010 with honours pretty much even, Button claiming two victories while Hamilton took three. Confounding the critics, Button proved he had the mettle to take on the man many considered to be the fastest man in the sport.

2011 was a turning point. After his hair-raising victory in the Canadian Grand Prix in which he overtook every car in the field, Button proceeded to demolish the struggling Hamilton in spectacular fashion, winning again in Hungary and Japan and regularly being the only man to challenge dominant Red Bull champion Sebastian Vettel. 2nd in the championship proved he had come of age. Like a fine wine Button had taken time to mature yet here he was, firmly ensconced at the pinnacle of the sharp end.

Button has had dark moments before – most notably with the disastrous Honda team in 2007 & 2008 in which he learnt the values of teamwork and loyalty.

2012 began in similar fashion, overwhelming Hamilton in Australia, and Button added a strong 2nd place in China, only missing out on victory when his team fumbled a pitstop. Then came Bahrain; Button broke down, and since then has claimed only 7 points, regularly qualifying and racing well down the order.

Are the ‘bad old days’ back to stay? Or is Button merely experiencing a strange slump in form that many of the F1 fraternity experience at some point in their careers?

The answer may lie with team mate Lewis Hamilton. By his own admission Hamilton had a messy 2011, with personal issues surrounding his relationship with celebrity girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger clouding his judgement and frequent on-track clashes marring his reputation. Could it be that Button is simply not quick enough to cope with Hamilton now the 2008 World Champion is back at his best?

Well, no. Hamilton has beaten Button on most weekends this season but the gremlins affecting Button now seem to be making their way into Hamilton’s side of the garage as well recently. Hamilton is acknowledged as being a versatile driver, able to mask any deficiencies in his car with his raw pace and skill at literally driving around problems. Last weekend at Silverstone Hamilton struggled and drove worse than Button, making no progress from his starting position and claiming after the race his team were way behind champions Red Bull in the car development race. This could be pivotal; Hamilton is mentally weaker than his older team mate, as 2011 showed quite clearly. If things are getting to him, it is surely proof all is not well at McLaren?

Squaring up to fellow Brit Lewis Hamilton has arguably made Button an even more rounded performer.

If the answer doesn’t lie with Hamilton, maybe it lies with Button himself? Has the ever-approachable Brit become too relaxed to deal with the hyper-competitive fray that is the 2012 F1 season? The cool demeanour that Button gives off is merely a reflection of a man who is basking in the knowledge that he has ticked off a huge box in his list of life goals. Claiming the World Championship in 2009 made Button easier-going, and he just seems happy to be enjoying the twilight of his F1 career having finally found himself at a team capable of regularly winning races. In recent weeks his calm front has slipped on occasion, and this may be indicative of the disturbing downturn in form displayed by his McLaren team. No driver wants to slip backwards down the pecking order, and Button certainly will not want to end his career on a whimper. He makes no secret of the fact that he still has designs on the 2012 championship title and will surely be targeting at least one more championship win before his current contract with McLaren expires.

Surrounding himself with family and friends has put Button in a strong mental state the last few seasons

Pirelli, currently the sole-provider of tyres for the Formula One teams, has made a raft of changes to the rubber it is using in 2012 compared with 2011. Button enjoyed the characteristics displayed by last year’s tyres as they suited his smooth driving style down to the ground while Hamilton was unable to get to grips with them. So is Button now struggling with the tyres? Is this the key to his moral-sapping lack of speed? Quite simply, no. While it is true Button has found them difficult to tame, he is not alone as many other drivers, Michael Schumacher included have criticised the approach taken by Pirelli to their manufacturing ethos this season. At Silverstone, Button ran for far longer than anyone else on tyres deemed expended after twelve laps. Button managed to go for almost twenty laps on the same rubber, proof he has not lost his famous ability.

There is a saying; form is temporary, class is permanent. While some degree of comfort can be found by Button in that he will always be in the record books as a World Champion, his name will forever be recorded as the winner of thirteen Grand Prix (at the time of writing), he will surely be concerned that if this current run of bad form continues his image as one of the best drivers in the sport will be tarnished.

How long before Button graces the top step of the podium once more?

As Button learned during the lean years at Honda though, he just has to keep his head down, work with his team and focus every sinew of his being when he sits in that cramped cockpit every Sunday afternoon.

And surely, sooner rather than later circumstances will conspire to place Jenson Button back on that top step as a Grand Prix winner once more.

Anthony French

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