JULY 20, 2001

The Button phenomenon

THE modern media in Formula 1 constantly demands stories and so there is a fairly active story-creation industry which has been developed.

THE modern media in Formula 1 constantly demands stories and so there is a fairly active story-creation industry which has been developed. If Michael Schumacher crashes on a Wednesday there will be doubts whether he will make the next race on Thursday and denials of those stories on the Friday. Everything is judged with a shocking sense of immediacy and very little long-term thinking. Thus, if you were to believe the media at the moment you would think that Jenson Button's career was over - despite the fact that the 21-year-old was the sensation of 2000. Some young drivers get to F1 and fail to impress but sensations do not go away. There are some, like Jean Alesi, who never really live up to their potential but most go on to better things.

Button has had a pretty bad year. The Benetton-Renault combination is pretty dire. This is really not the issue. The fact is that Jenson has not beaten Giancarlo Fisichella and the critics will tell you that this is why Jenson should be written off. They forget that at the end of last year Button was outpacing Ralf Schumacher, a man who is now being talked about as the potential World Champion of 2002.

To start with Fisichella is quick. Ask any F1 driver and they will all mention his name when they talk of the men who are naturally fast. He has considerably more experience in F1 (and with Benetton) than did Button and so it is really not surprising that Button has been overshadowed. It remains to be seen what will happen for the rest of the season. Button did himself no good at all by playing up his playboy image in the first half of the year. He is a youngster with millions to spend having some fun. But he is sharp enough to realize that now he has to deliver and the recent races have seen a much more concentrated Jenson.

After such a great debut year there was always the potential for a bad second season. If he had stayed at Williams things might have been different - but he was not given the option. He had to move on. Williams is a very straightforward team but one gets the impression that Benetton is much more political. The performance of individual drivers can fluctuate alarmingly depending on who is in favor.

Button is learning all the time. There is nothing like a bit of pain to teach a young driver how to improve and Button is going through one of these sticky patches. The major reason that Frank Williams moved Jenson on was that he felt that the Englishman needed to be a little more tempered by experience. That process is now happening.

So Button is not finished. His extraordinary natural talent will bring him back into the limelight. By then he will probably have learned how to apply himself a little bit more.

British fans looking at a fading generation of David Coulthard, Eddie Irvine and so on need not worry therefore. Button will be back.