This time last year, Jenson Button and the then Honda team were perennial back of the field runners. Button had scored his only points of the season with a sixth in Spain (back in April) and was on his way to his worst season to date (though his stint at Bennetton in 2001 also ranks up there).
He was written off as a potential world champion; there was no possible way the Honda outfit could turn itself around that quickly. Plus, when Honda eventually sold the team, it looked like he, and teammate Rubens Barrichello, would not even be on the grid this season.
Yet, with new owner Ross Brawn at the helm, Button is driving the best car on the grid, has won six of seven races, and holds a commanding 32-point lead over title rival Sebastian Vettel (I don’t included Barrichello as a title rival, because the team isn’t likely to let the two teammates battle for a title, especially with Button’s lead).
Plus, in recent weeks, it seems that many are “throwing in the towel,” ready to appoint Button the 2009 World Driving Champion. And, despite 10 races remaining in the season, I can’t find anything that would suggest a different outcome
As I said, Button’s lead is 32 points; that’s a little more than three races. Typically, a driver with that large of a gap is nearly a shoe-in to clinch the world championship.
Of course, history says that comebacks can happen. In 2006, Fernando Alonso led Michael Schumacher by a similar margin (24 points) heading into the U.S. Grand Prix. A Schumacher victory, coupled with Alonso struggling to fifth, was the momentum Schummy and Ferrari needed to mount a title charge.
So, that should be all you need to know to say that the 2009 championship is far from over, right? Not so fast.
In that 2006 season, there was a slight row regarding Renault and their mass damper system. Because their dampers in the nose of the car could move within the nosecone (as was the design, to shift weight around and maximize speed), the FIA ruled that it was a movable aerodynamic device. It was subsequently banned mid-way through the season.
That penalty proved extremely costly; the Renault R26 never had the speed it showed earlier that season, allowing Schumacher and Ferrari to close the gap, and even hold an advantage, despite trailing the French team through the season.
Now, such a scenario might have played out this year…had Diffuser Row ended up seeing these new double-decker diffusers illegal. Instead, with such a device legal and all teams now trying to apply them, the reverse may be happening.
The BGP001 was designed with that diffuser in mind; it was one of the focal points the designers used and a centerpiece to the car’s performance (which has been nothing short of phenomenal).
Red Bull’s RB5, however, was not designed with such a device in mind. It is only on the car because of the clear advantage Brawn seems to have with it. Because Brawn has been using that diffuser since their car was first penned, they were able to solve any teething problems in the design blue prints in testing (if any were apparent, that is).
Red Bull won’t have the luxury of multiple tests to work out any teething problems with their diffuser design (remember, in-season testing has been banned). Therefore, it may take several races before they understand how to properly utilize it and work through any teething problems.
And while they’re busy doing that, nothing appears to be in the way of Brawn’s freight train. Button said it best on the radio after the Turkish Grand Prix: “You’ve built me a monster of a car.”
However, one can’t simply chalk up Button’s 2009 successes solely to his car. Finally, Button has a car capable of matching his driving talents. So much of success in F1 is dependant on the car, and the Brit has had to drive some real pigs in his career (the past two Honda pieces taking the cake).
While teammate Rubens Barrichello has driven the same car, only Button has managed to secure poles and wins, while Barrichello failed to capture similar results (especially in the early races).
Button has taken this all-conquering piece that Ross Brawn has given him and is doing things akin to Michael Schumacher in his days at Ferrari. With a renewed focus and drive, Button has seized this opportunity and run with it.
In the span of one year, Jenson Button has gone from a driver without a team or car to a driver on the cusp of winning a world championship. Ten races may remain on the schedule, but the dominance of Button and the car illustrate this clear fact: This title is in his hands.
He just has to hold onto it.