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AUGUST 8, 2001

Button lifts his game


Jenson Button, German GP 2001
© The Cahier Archive

Last year he had praise and hype heaped upon him in almost equal measure, but this year all he's had is criticism. But the last two races have shown that Jenson Button is beginning to turn the corner rather faster than his recalcitrant Benetton-Renault.

A year ago, Jenson Button was just hitting his stride as the new golden boy of Formula One. Qualifying fifth - for the second time in only four races ahead of much-vaunted team-mate Ralf Schumacher - he found himself running ahead of the German's elder brother Michael, too, on his way to a fifth place finish.

Twelve months later Button had learned that F1 can bite. A miserable season at Benetton Renault has seen him blown off much of the time by team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella - himself deemed to be on the skids last season - as both struggle with an uncompetitive, underpowered car. Such has been Button's form this season that there has even been talk of him being replaced before the end of the year, and not running with Benetton in 2002 despite the iron-clad two-year deal that Benetton struck with Sir Frank Williams, who has the 21 year-old Englishman under contract until the end of 2004.

"It's not as if he woke up one day and his talent had deserted him," insists Button's manager, businessman David Robertson. "People have to understand that it is difficult fitting into a new team with a car that has problems."

Recently Button received some overdue moral support from Benetton. Chief engineer Pat Symonds said: "People underestimate the value of continuity. The team know what Giancarlo thinks and what he likes after three years, whereas Jenson is new. There is no doubt that he is a very, very rapid driver who can do better than we are allowing him to at present. Really, I think his problems have been down to continuity and little else."

Button clicked with BMW Williams directors Sir Frank and Patrick Head last season, when at times he outqualified and outraced Ralf Schumacher in the second half of a highly successful rookie season. But Benetton chief Flavio Briatore has a reputation for feeding on those he perceives to be weak. He is, after all, the man who said nothing to Johnny Herbert in 1995 after the Englishman had won his team the Italian GP at Monza. But even Briatore has now indicated that Button's future is safe with a team that has taken some ambitious technical steps for 2001 in the hope of moving up fast in 2002. That ambition has led to unreliability that has cost Benetton 60 percent of the track testing time it had accrued this time last season.

That hasn't helped Button, whose problems have further been compounded by internal politics. When he was finally given the same chassis set up as Fisichella in Magny-Cours a fortnight ago he responded by lapping faster than the Italian and running ahead of him in the race until a bungled pit stop.

"I knew at the start of the season that things were going to be very difficult," Button admits. "It's just a little bit tougher than I thought but a lot of the other problems haven't just been the team. I've also had my own. The car has been quite difficult to work with but the good thing is that I'm more confident now than I was with it."

He has six races left in which to rebuild his image, but Magny-Cours and Silverstone were both a step in the right direction even though pit stop problems and poor luck with traffic respectively prevented him having much to show for his afternoons' work.