Jenson Button was so nearly the ‘nearly man’ – widely acknowledged as a technically superb driver who never managed to partner his talent with a championship-winning drive. Overtaken in the public affections by Lewis Hamilton, and saddled with a dreadful car at Honda, he looked to be in a career-defining rut. Then along came Brawn GP, and a fairytale come true for “Our Jense”. Wondering how it all happened? Read on…
Jenson Alexander Lyons Button was born on January 19 1908 to parents John Button and Simone Lyons in Frome, Somerset, in the west of England. He was the last of four children, with three older sisters named Tania, Samantha and Natasha, and attended local schools Selwood Middle School and Frome Community College. He currently lives in Monaco and is a talented triathlon competitor in addition to his F1 skills. In common with Lewis Hamilton, he says that he would have wanted to be a sportsman in another discipline if he hadn’t made it as a racing driver.
As the son of a well-known former Rallycross ace, he had the racing bug in his blood from an early age. This also will not have been harmed by his having been named after a car marque – in this case, the British sports car manufacturer Jensen responsible for such iconic vehicles as the Interceptor and the FF (unless it was really an old racing opponent of his dad’s that inspired the name) .
In fact, Button began karting at age eight after his father bought him his first kart, and he made an immediate impact by winning all 34 races of the 1991 British Cadet Kart Championship to take the title.
Further successes followed, including three triumphs in the British Open Kart Championship. In 1997 he became the youngest driver ever to win the European Super A Championship. Next he chalked up a victory in the Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup as well, precipitating a move into car racing.
He contested the British Formula Ford Championship with Haywood Racing, aged 18, and tool the title with nine race wins. He also took victory in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, ahead of future Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
At the end of 1998 he won the annual McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award. His prize included a test in a McLaren Formula One car, which he received at the end of the following year.
Button entered Formula Three in 1999 with the Promatecme team and won three times – at Thruxton, Pembrey and Silverstone. He finished the season as top rookie driver and was third overall in the championship behind Marc Hynes and Luciano Burti. He also finished fifth and second respectively in the Marlboro Masters and Macau Grand Prix, 0.035 seconds behind winner Darren Manning in the latter race.
Formula One – Williams
At the end of 1999 Button tested for the Prost team. However, a vacant race seat became available at the Williams team following the departure of Alessandro Zanardi, and team boss Frank Williams arranged a shoot-out between Button and Formula 3000 racer Bruno Junqueira. Button won the seat.
He finished eighth in the 2000 Drivers’ Championship including a race at Spa Francorchamps where he qualified 3rd and finished 4th. However he succumbed to a number of rookie mistakes during the season, including crashing while under safety car conditions at Monza. He was outscored by his more experienced teammate Ralf Schumacher.
Formula One – Renault
In 2001, although he remained contracted to Williams, Button drove for Benetton, which was at that point newly-acquired by Renault. His season looks familiar to current fans in retrospect: the car was constantly under development, it was never fast enough, and Button did not thrive. He managed a fifth-place finish at the German Grand Prix, but finished a disappointing seventeenth in that year’s drivers’ championship.
In 2002 Benetton became Renault F1. Team-mate Jarno Trulli routinely outpaced him in qualifying, but Button occasionally had the upper hand with superior race pace. He narrowly missed third place (and his first podium) at the Malaysian Grand Prix, being passed by Michael Schumacher in the last lap due to a suspension failure in his Renault, and ultimately finished the race in fourth. The Brazilian Grand Prix gave him another fourth place, and he finished seventh in that year’s drivers championship.
In 2003 Renault team principal Flavio Briatore replaced Button with Fernando Alonso, claiming: “Time will tell if I am wrong.” And it is hard for Button’s biggest fans to argue that he was, given Alonso’s two drivers’ championship titles while he was still struggling to win races. The Times quoted Briatore as saying “Jenson is a fine driver but there were too many contracts, too many things in the background.”
Formula One – BAR
Displaced from Renault, Button joined the BAR team alongside former drivers’ champion Jacques Villeneuve. As the season progressed, Button gained the upper hand in qualifying and also enjoyed better luck in races.
His best result of the season was a fourth place in Austria. However, he crashed heavily during Saturday practice in Monaco, causing him to miss both the race and the following test at Monza.
By the end of the season, though, things were looking up, and at the 2003 United States Grand Prix Button led a lap for the first time. He finished ninth in the Drivers’ Championship that year with 17 points.
In 2004, Button and BAR-Honda made significant progress and BAR finished the season second in the Constructors’ Championship. Button scored his first podium with a third place in the Malaysian Grand Prix, and added nine more throughout that season.
Button and BAR’s first pole position came in April at the 2004 San Marino Grand Prix, in which he finished second. He ended the season third overall, behind the two dominant Ferrari drivers, with 85 points.
Despite his success with BAR, on 5 August 2004 Button revealed he had signed for Williams for the next two years, sparking a controversial contract dispute. An apparent loophole in his BAR contract permitted him to leave if Honda’s commitment to the team was in any doubt.
BAR boss David Richards fought to keep him, though Frank Williams maintained that the switch was entirely legal. The FIA Contract Recognition Board (CRB) held a hearing on 16 October in Milan, Italy, to arbitrate in the dispute, ruling that he was contracted to BAR-Honda for the 2005 season.
A poor start to the 2005 Formula One season included disqualification at the San Marino Grand Prix after scrutineers found what was alleged to be a secret extra fuel tank, allowing the car to finish above minimum weight despite potentially being able to run lighter during the race. The team was handed a two-race ban for the team, allowing Button to make his television commentary debut, for ITV Sport in Monaco – a role he thankfully didn’t settle into, although providing an entertaining and extremely well-informed source of information for fans on the day.
Button took the second pole position of his career at Montreal. However he started the race poorly, and crashed on lap 46 while in third place. Despite having to wait until the halfway point of the season to score his first world Championship point, things improved considerably towards the end of the year. After a fourth place finish at the 2005 French Grand Prix, Button placed himself second on the grid for his home grand prix at Silverstone. Unfortunately, another slow start saw him lose position, and poor race pace dropped him through the field to finish fifth. He qualified his BAR-Honda in second place for the 2005 German Grand Prix, and then went on to finish third, his first podium finish of the season.
In 2005 Button was once again embroiled in contractual controversy. Despite having signed a contract with Williams for 2006, he was unhappy about the fact that BMW had invested in Sauber and would no longer be suppling that team. Frank Williams was adamant that the contract must be honoured despite Button claiming that circumstances had changed and he had a right to remain at BAR.
On 21 September 2005, BAR confirmed that Button would once again drive for them in 2006 (having bought out his contract from Williams for a reported £20 million), where he would partner ex-Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello.
Formula One: Honda
At the start of the 2006 season BAR became a Honda works team and was renamed Honda Racing F1. At the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix he scored five points with a fourth-place finish and he made it onto the podium in Malaysia. He put his car on pole position in Australia – but his engine blew while he was running third and he stopped short of the finish line to avoid an engine penalty.
The early part of the season proved difficult. At Monaco he qualified 14th and finished 11th. At his home race at Silverstone he qualified 19th after he lost time being on the weighbridge and his team failed to get him back on track quickly enough. He spun off on lap eight due to an engine failure.
At the 2006 Canadian Grand Prix, Button managed to out-qualify his teammate for the first time since Imola. However, after battling with David Coulthard in eighth, Button was overtaken and lost his chance for a point. Another retirement occurred at the 2006 United States Grand Prix when Button was one of several drivers eliminated in a first-lap collision.
At the French Grand Prix, Button retired once more due to an engine failure. Qualifying for the German Grand Prix, however, was a more cheerful affair. Button managed to get onto the second row of the grid with P4. After running for a while during the race in a strong P3, Button eventually finished back in P4.
Button took the first win of his career in 2006 at a chaotic Hungarian Grand Prix – the 113th grand prix start of his career. In doing so he overcame a 10-grid slot penalty for changing his engine (the second driver after Raikkonen to win a race despite this penalty), which meant he started 14th. The race was badly affected by heavy rain. Button passed a number of drivers in the early laps – including championship contender Michael Schumacher – and was up to fourth by lap 10. Following the retirement of leading drivers Kimi Raikkonen (accident) and Fernando Alonso (driveshaft failure) he went on to win the race by more than 40 seconds from Pedro de la Rosa and Nick Heidfeld.
The Turkish Grand Prix was the subject of high expectations due to the previous race, and Button ended a strong fourth. The next three races, in Italy, China, and Japan all gave Button strong points positions with fourth- and fifth-place finishes. Over the last six races of the season, Button scored more points (35) than any other driver.
In 2007, Button again competed with the Honda Racing F1 team alongside Rubens Barrichello. He was unable to take part in winter testing, prior to the 2007 season because of two hairline fractures to his ribs, sustained in a karting incident in late 2006. Former British world champion Damon Hill aired doubts over Button’s hopes to be a championship contender at Honda over the coming season, saying: “If he is serious… he has to get himself in a car that is a championship contender.”
At the first race of the season in Australia, Button only managed to qualify 14th after handling problems. The race was no better as he endured considerable understeer throughout, was given a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pit lane and finished 15th. The next two races in Malaysia and Bahrain were just as unsuccessful, Button finishing 12th behind team-mate Rubens Barrichello in Malaysia, and not even completing a lap in Bahrain after colliding with Red Bull Racing driver David Coulthard at the first corner. At the French Grand Prix Button finished eighth, earning his and Honda’s first point of 2007.
Following the British Grand Prix, it was announced that Button would remain with Honda for 2008. But he made no secret of how hard he was finding things, describing his 2007 season as “a total disaster”, and saying: “I’m not going to hang around finishing 14th”. He also described his car as “a complete dog”. Button did, however, record several impressive outings towards the end of the season, especially on wet tracks.
Button stayed with Honda for 2008, still alongside Rubens Barrichello. He retired at the Australian Grand Prix on the first lap then finished 10th at Malaysia. In Bahrain he retired after running over David Coulthard’s wing. He scored his first and only points at the Spanish Grand Prix with sixth place. He then had three 11th place finishes in a row at Turkey, Monaco, and Canada. He was the only driver to retire at the French Grand Prix, and failed to finish the British Grand Prix as well.
The Honda pull-out
On December 5 2008 Honda announced that it was pulling out of F1, due to the global economic crisis. This left Button’s chances of a drive in 2009 dependent on the team finding a buyer.
After a fraught winter, during which his chances of staying in F1 were judged increasingly remote, it was announced on March 5 2009 that the former Honda team would become Brawn GP, following a buy-out by Ross Brawn, the Team Principal of Honda Racing.
Button and Barrichello were confirmed shortly afterwards as the team’s drivers for the 2009 season.
Formula One: Brawn GP’s inaugural double championship win
Button took pole position in the 2009 Australian Grand Prix, his first race for the team, with Barrichello in second place, and led the race from start to finish to win the race ahead of his team-mate – the first time a team scored a 1-2 finish on their debut since 1954.
One week later, he made it two poles and two wins in a row at the Malaysian Grand Prix. The race was stopped due to heavy rain with less than 75 per cent completed, and half points were awarded. Button scored his first hat trick (pole, win and fastest lap). At the 2009 Chinese Grand Prix Button finished third behind Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. Button won the 4th race of the season, the 2009 Bahrain Grand Prix, finishing ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Jarno Trulli, after starting 4th on the grid.
More victories followed in Spain, Monaco and Turkey. But then Brawn GP – and particularly Button – seemed to lose the winning habit. At the British Grand Prix he suffered a dismal weekend, outperformed comprehensively by Barrichello and finishing sixth to the Brazilian’s third. Things weren’t much better in Germany where he came fifth in a race won by Red Bull’s Mark Webber and saw his points lead reduced to 21 ahead of Sebastien Vettel.
The team was more optimistic about the Hungarian Grand Prix following an aero update. However, disaster struck when Barrichello experienced a suspension failure with the resulting loose part striking Felipe Massa on the head and nearly killing him. As a result Button only had time for one qualifying run, lying a season-worst 8th on the grid and subsequently finishing seventh in the race.
Button suffered in qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix, failing to reach the final qualifying session. On the first lap of the race he was forced to retire after spinning on contact with Grosjean in an incident that also took out Hamilton and Alguersuari. This shortened his championship lead to 16 points, with Barrichello coming seventh.
Button recovered at Monza, qualifying sixth behind Barrichello, and finishing second to the Brazilian’s first, scoring another welcome one-two for the team. In Singapore he qualified 12th, was promoted to 11th and opted to run the car very heavy on fuel. This strategy got him up to fifth but he was unable to progress further up the field. Barrichello finished a place behind him.
A week later in Japan he qualified seventh but, along with his team-mate, was demoted five places for failing to slow for a yellow flag. This meant he started the race from 10th position, subsequently finishing in 8th, a place behind his team-mate.
At the Brazilian Grand Prix Button was hampered by poor weather in qualifying and could only achieve fourteenth position. His championship campaign was boosted by Sebastian Vettel qualifying sixteenth, but team-mate and closest rival Rubens Barrichello qualified on pole.
In the race, Button made up five positions on the opening lap, aided by a first-lap incident, and was up to seventh by lap seven. He ran as high as second place by the halfway mark, but ultimately finished fifth, taking enough points to secure the 2009 World Championship with one round to spare.
At the final race of the season, in Abu Dhabi, Button qualified fifth, behind his team-mate once again, but during the race, aided by the retirement of Lewis Hamilton, Button was able to achieve a podium by coming third.
With 169 starts, Button made the second-highest number of race starts before becoming World Champion. Only Nigel Mansell (with 176 starts, at the 1992 Hungarian Grand Prix) had competed in more races than Button before winning the title.