DRIVERS: JENSON BUTTON
Name: Jenson Button
Nationality: Great Britain
Date of birth: January 19, 1980 - Frome, England
Few drivers have ever graduated to F1 with the fanfare and furor which surrounded the announcement of Jenson Button as a Williams driver in February 2000.
Two years earlier the 20 year-old from Frome in Somerset had been about to embark on his first season of Formula Ford after a glittering career in karting. Now he made the front pages of half the British national daily newspapers.
Button's father, John, raced with distinction in rallycross in the Seventies (against Alexander Wurz's father Franz), and then began entering his eight year-old son in Cadet kart races. Jenson began winning almost immediately, and took the British Championship in his first full season. Before long he had wiped the floor with his rivals in the highly competitive British Junior TKM Championship, before heading to Europe. There he distinguished himself in Formula A and Super A, taking on and often beating the cream of the world's karters. Only a broken chain in the final of the World Championship prevented him taking the crown.
The switch to cars brought immediate success with Haywood Racing's Mygale in 1998, as Button swept to the British Championship. His domination pushed him into Formula Three by 1999, where he won two races and finished third and best-placed rookie in the British Championship despite the relative disadvantage of running a Renault engine against the more-powerful Mugen-Hondas.
An extraordinarily mature and composed young driver, Button combined fearsome speed with smoothness and aggression. His first taste of F1 came courtesy of McLaren late in 1999, as his prize for winning the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award the previous season. That December he staggered Prost by bettering Jean Alesi's times in a 10-lap test run in Barcelona. He seemed so impressive that team owner Sir Frank Williams was prevailed upon to give him a tryout for the role of test driver, but such was Button's pace that it became a shoot-out with Brazilian Bruno Junqueira for the second race seat. Despite his youth Button won, and made a spectacular debut in Australia, where he matched (and sometimes beat) the race times of much-vaunted teammate Ralf Schumacher.
After a decent first season at Williams he was forced to move to Renault to make way for Juan Pablo Montoya. Button's two seasons at Renault were disappointing but for 2003 he signed for the BAR team, initially as team mate to Jacques Villeneuve.
Button's progress against Villeneuve was impressive and by the end of the year Villeneuve had gone and Button was the number one driver. In 2004 the BAR-Honda combination was much more successful and Jenson scored 10 podium finishes and was third in the World Championship despite failing to win a race. In the middle of the year it was announced that he would be going back to Williams in 2005 but BAR challenged the deal and the Contract Recognition Board ruled in BAR's favour. Button stayed with BAR. A year later he decided that he wanted to stay with the team in 2006 rather than go to Williams as he was contracted to do. The battle fought the previous year was thus fought in reverse with Jenson finally buying way out of the Williams deal to take up a huge offer from Honda.
It turned out to be a good decision as Williams struggled and Honda improved dramatically and in Hungary Button won his first Grand Prix victory and went on to finish sixth in the Drivers' World Championship.
After the success of 2006, however, the Honda team went into a decline. Button had earned 56 points in 2006 but only managed to get 6 in 2007. Other than fifth place in the rain-soaked Chinese Grand Prix, there was little to be happy about, but Button, who only had two other points finishes with eighth places in France and Italy, kept smiling. His Honda RA107 suffered from an aerodynamic imbalance - the downforce levels shifted backwards and forwards under acceleration and braking - that the team struggled to fix. By midseason the team shifted its focus into developing the 2008 car.
Yet Honda's strategy did not pay off in 2008 which turned out to be even worse for Button than in 2007. He finished 18th in the championship with a meager 3 points with a sixth place in Spain. He only managed two other finishes in the top 10. Former Ferrari technical guru Ross Brawn had joined Honda on November 26, 2007 after taking a sabbatical that year. He arrived too late to have any influence on the Honda RA108 which was a bad car from end to end including its underpowered engine. Once again the team decided to write off the current season and start working on next year's car.
Button got the shock of his racing life when he returned from vacation in December 2008 and heard via a telephone call about Honda's sudden decision to pull out of F1. Instead of getting depressed, he went to the team's F1 factory located in Brackley, near the Silverstone circuit, and told everybody there not to get discouraged. But it was not until just a few weeks before the start of the 2009 season that the team's future was secured with Brawn and a small group of investors taking over and doing a deal to switch to Mercedes engines.
The Mercedes-powered Brawn BGP 001 was astoundingly quick straight out of the box. In its first test in March 2009 - and at the only test where all 10 teams were together with their new cars - the Brawn was nearly a second faster than its rivals. The Brawns were not running underweight, as some people speculated. Despite its uncertain future, the team had never stopped developing the car during the offseason.
Button won the season opener in Australia and won again in Malaysia. A third place in China was followed with consecutive victories in Bahrain, Spain, Monaco and Turkey. One of the key reasons for the Brawn's competitiveness was its double-deck rear diffuser - a concept that only Toyota and Williams also had at the start of the season - but overall the BGP 001 was a nicely balanced car. Its weak point: the cooler the track temperatures the slower the car went. The solution may have been complex or simple, but the team never really figured out what needed to be done to solve its predicament. Furthermore, the other teams closed the gap on the Brawns in the second half of the season.
Brawn's downturn began in the British and German races where the ambient and track temperatures were quite cool and continued in Hungary where it was cooler than usual. Button never won again, and other than a second in Italy and a third in Abu Dhabi, he didn't even manage to finish on the podium in the 10 races following the Turkish Grand Prix. But he'd racked up enough points to hang onto the championship lead from the first race to the last.
As the newly crowned world champion, Button, who had taken a pay cut to help the team survive, wanted a pay raise for 2010. On November 18, 2009 McLaren announced it had signed a three-year contract with Button. Money was not the issue - Button said Brawn was offering more. Instead, Button claimed he was looking for a fresh challenge.
Although Lewis Hamilton had been part of McLaren since 1998, Button quickly settled in. The two British drivers got along extremely well. Wins in the tricky wet conditions in Australia and China cemented Button's position within the team and proved wrong those who said Hamilton would blow him away. As the season progressed, however, Hamilton usually managed to be one place ahead of Button. The latter's main problem was in qualifying, and poor grid positions made for tough races. Button didn't win again in 2010, but steady finishes in the points along with five trips to the podium kept him in contention for the championship until the penultimate round in Brazil. The only real bad race he had was in rainy Korea where he was hopeless.
Button's chassis set-up feedback was invaluable to the team which often used his settings on Hamilton's car. Button really likes the fact that the team listens to him, and said he was feeling very positive as he headed into the 2011 season.