So far 2009 has been one of Formula 1’s biggest ever fairytale stories for Jenson Button. In 2007 and 2008 he had terrible cars, which gave him absolutely no hope of battling at the front. Even the best drivers, including the likes of Fernando Alonso, wouldn’t have been able to extract much more from those two forgettable cars.
Over the winter Jenson Button had been none the wiser over whether he would be actually racing at all in 2009. He came so close to being placed on the Formula 1 scrapheap. Now six races into the 2009 season he has won 5 races and holds a 16 point lead over Rubens Barrichello in the drivers’ championship, and 28 points over Sebastien Vettel. Button has simply obliterated the opposition so far.
The Englishman showed signs throughout his F1 career that he was potentially a great driver. He has just never had the car he deserves until now. 2004 is the only season where he has consistently had a competitive car throughout. That season he finished on the podium 10 times. He finished best of the rest behind the Ferrari drivers. Their car was miles ahead of the opposition that year. Take Ferrari out of the equation and Button would have been world champion.
In the last third of the 2006 season, which included his first F1 win from 14th in the wet Hungarian GP, he scored more points than any other driver, including title contenders Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso.
He is acknowledged as one of the smoothest drivers in the field, Alain Prost like, which has been particularly useful this season with the return of slick tyres, which degrade very quickly, particularly the rears. His driving style is very easy on the tyres which has given him an advantage to many of the other drivers in 2009.
Button is one of the best wet weather drivers and has brilliant race craft. He is also a grafter, and this season he has been more dedicated than ever. He is also one of the fittest, if not the fittest driver on the grid. He recently participated in triathlons, and will contest the London triathlon in August.
Yet some sceptics remain and these will inevitably say that the only reason Button is winning races is because of the car that Ross Brawn has given him. Unfair we say.
Whilst it’s true that the BGP001 is a brilliant car, Button has extracted everything from it, and made the most of this near perfect scenario. Other drivers in F1 have failed to take their chance when they have had a quick car. Giancarlo Fisichella’s stint at Renault is a good recent example of this. He only won two races in the time that team mate Alonso won 14.
It’s also important to consider that apart from Melbourne, the Brawn GP has not actually been that far ahead. Since Australia the opposition have closed very quickly. At the start of the season the advantage Brawn GP had was around 0.6-0.8 seconds. That gap has been slashed to just a tenth or two. In qualifying especially they face very tough opposition.
In Melbourne Jenson just had to keep his head and not make any errors, and victory was his. It might have looked like an easy race, but the track was very slippery, and visibility was poor due to the twilight start time. The softest tyre compound in Australia was also a catastrophe. Whilst others struggled, Button dealt with the stint on these tyres with ease. He had better pace than the others, but it was a very mature drive for someone not use to driving at the front for ages.
His other race wins have all required Button magic to make them possible. They haven’t just been about keeping the car on the road. He has had to make things happen.
In Malaysia Button fell from 1st to 4th at the start, but recovered brilliantly. He was stuck behind the KERs car of Alonso. However he pulled off a brilliant opportunistic move on the corner before the long back straight, and held on as Alonso deployed his KERs to try and take the position back. He then reeled in and overtook Jarno Trulli.
Race leader Nico Rosberg then pitted, and Button did two incredible laps, and came out comfortably ahead of Rosberg. He then gained a full 8 seconds on him as the rain started to fall. As the rain got heavier he held on, as Glock put pressure on him. This was a masterful drive by Button in a car that had never been tested in the wet.
Bahrain was even more impressive. It was blistering hot in Bahrain and the Brawn GP car was struggling with overheating. Button could only qualify 4th, and he was surrounded by KERs cars. He would only be able to push in the race if he was in clean air. If he ended up having to follow someone he would have to hang back.
Button only lost out to Hamilton at the start, and managed to get ahead of Vettel. Button needed to clear Hamilton to have any chance of challenging for race victory. At the start of lap 2 Button took a brave lunge at Hamilton into Turn 1 and made it stick. He was now in clear air following the lighter Toyotas. He was now able to push and chase race victory.
Once the Toyotas came in he did some quick laps, and made the most of their wrong tyre choice for the middle stint, and cruised to victory. He maintained the gap and nursed his car to the finish. In Bahrain he pulled off what before the race looked like an unlikely result.
The key to his victories in Malaysia and Bahrain were pulling off a stunning moves on a KERs car. So far, drivers without the KERs system have found it next to impossible to pass cars that have the system on board. Button has broken this trend twice. Had he not gone for the move, he wouldn’t have won either of those races.
In Spain he struggled throughout the weekend, but got altogether when it mattered in the last moments of qualifying. Three stops was the ideal strategy, but due to traffic he switched to two stops. He managed to make it work by being brilliant on a heavy fuel load, and sublime on the stint with the harder tyres. He beat his disgruntled team mate by simply making more of his strategy than he did. Barrichello had no reason to moan.
In Monaco it was a last gasp qualifying lap again which put him on pole, after struggling with setup all weekend as he had been in Spain. The lap was crucial to his race as pole tends to be the favoured starting spot on the tight street circuit. Had either Ferrari or his team mate Barrichello qualified ahead of him winning the race wouldn’t have been possible. Overtaking on the streets of Monte-Carlo is as close to impossible as you can get.
It is indisputable that Button has simply been the best driver so far this season. He has shown glimpses throughout his career that he is a great driver, and now he is rubber stamping it. Ross Brawn recently compared Button to Michael Schumacher. On these performances so far it’s very hard to take issue with him.
Button has matched Schumacher who won 5 of his first 6 races in 2004, and the same with Nigel Mansell in 1992.
However in these two championships Schumacher and Mansell had a car with a much bigger advantage than Button’s Brawn. Mansell’s Williams was the most advanced F1 car ever at the time designed by Adrian Newey. At the start of the season it was nearly 2.0 seconds quicker than anything else (the current gap covering the entire 2009 grid is less than that!). Schumacher’s 2004 Ferrari was around a second quicker at the start of the season.
This makes Button’s great start even more outstanding and he deserves much more praise than he has received so far. We are witnessing a driver at his peak in a car that is up there with the great chassis of the modern Formula 1 era. History is being made every time they trun a wheel in anger,
Button’s career reminiscent to that of Mika Hakkinen’s. Both not getting the opportunity to seriously challenge for the title until later in their respective careers. When Hakkinen got the chance he took it with both hands, and was maybe unlucky not to have won a third title. Hakkinen is now remembered as one of the greats of Formula 1.
The same could and should very well apply to Jenson Button and really few on the grid deserve the glory more than him. We, who call ourselves fans and F1 followers, should also savour it now rather than in ten years time as people now do with Hakkinen.
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