Jenson Button’s second opportunity to put one over new team-mate Lewis Hamilton has come to naught after he was two-tenths of a second slower in Top Gear’s Reasonably-Priced Car challenge.
Just a week after the F1 world champion failed to out-do Hamilton and win the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award, he was the star of the week in the Top Gear studio – waiting to learn how fast he had managed to lap Dunsfold Aerodrome in a Suzuki Liana.
The car, which has been superseded for most guests in favour of the very slightly sportier Chevrolet Lacetti, is nevertheless preserved for F1 drivers so as to give a benchmark when comparing their performance.
Button already had one lap in the bag from a previous appearance in 2006, a dry-weather 1:44.7 that was matched by Hamilton in the wet on his September 2008 appearance.
The new F1 champion, who said he had improved as a driver since his first appearance, posted his new lap on the same sort of wet and slippery conditions that Hamilton faced – and came in at a tantalisingly close 1:44.9.
When accused of being a fusspot in setting up the Liana he deadpanned: “You have to listen to me, I’m a guest… I had to change my driving style here. I think it was the snow, possibly. I have learned so much coming here. I am really going to take it into the 2010 season.”
He claimed that the challenge was surprisingly nervewracking, much more so than Formula One, and that he had been able to use the slippery track to drift the car through the corners. Track veteran Jeremy Clarkson, however, told him that his lost fraction of a second was down to “showboating through the last few corners.”
In the pre-lap interview he had faced a grilling from Clarkson over his Sports Personality loss, largely composed of showing clips of the strained smile on his face while Ryan Giggs was giving his acceptance speech.
More seriously, talking about the events at Honda a year ago when the company announced it was withdrawing from F1, he recalled: “It was difficult – I got a message from my manager saying it’s over.
“That was a really difficult thing to take in – we were going to have a competitive car capable of winning races. It would have been a tragedy. All I could do was to stay focused and help the team as much as I could.”
On his first test in the Brawn car, he said: “I knew that we had a good car but until you actually drive it you don’t know 100 per cent. We bolted in a Mercedes Benz engine, went out and tested at Barcelona. After five laps I really felt comfortable with the car.
“My engineer said: ‘Jenson, you are 7/10 quicker than anyone else and they have been testing for three months’.”
When asked about his championship year, he provoked wry laughter from Clarkson by saying: “Leading the championship from start to finish sounds easy – but it isn’t. It is really hard.”
He also gave an insight into some of the on-track tactics he used to keep lesser drivers trapped behind him in his title-winning race at Brazil, saying that he had deliberately oversteered to spook rivals into giving him space.
And on new team-mate Lewis Hamilton: “Beating him is the aim, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. This is a massive buzz for me, this is so exciting.”
He revealed that his road car is still a Bugatti Veyron that he claims has never done that much over the speed limit. Yes indeed. Or, as he told Clarkson after admitting he had secretly driven a lap of the Dunsfold Aerodrome track in it: “I can’t actually say what I want to say, because I want to sell it.”
And with that “our World Champion” left the studio – to rapturous applause. But that was not the only taste of Formula One the audience got this evening.
Earlier, with the episode film featuring the team embarking on a project to make various kinds of automotive art, Clarkson teamed up with none other than Red Bull’s David Coulthard to shoot paintballs out of the back of a RB1 Formula One car.
“I’ve done some weird things in my life,” said the bemused driver, “and this is right up there.”
Unfortunately the force of the paintballs knocked Clarkson screaming to the ground after he discovered that ear protection does not extend to more intimate areas.
Coulthard pointed out that he had no intention of administering mouth to mouth before taking the RB1 for an artistic spin around the track.
“You’ve sprayed my helmet,” said Coulthard on his return. “Well, you’ve shot off one of my testicles,” rejoined Clarkson, who by this time had donned the kind of abdominal protection more usually worn by cricketers – albeit over his jeans.