I was unfortunately unable to watch Sunday’s 2011 Hungarian Grand Prix live as I had other commitments. This was a shame on so many levels as having now watched a re-run, I realise I missed a cracker of a race. Perhaps more irritating on a personal level, though, I missed one of my F1 heroes completing his 200th Grand Prix in the best way possible. Not only did Jenson Button manage to win, he did it at the circuit that brought about his long awaited and well deserved first victory in Formula One!
So I thought it might be a good idea to look back at Button’s career in F1 and try and get an idea how he compares to another World Champion, Fernando Alonso, as Alonso himself edges ever closer to his big 200 mark.
In the year 2000, Jenson Button joined the Williams Formula One team having shown great promise in lower formulas, and having beaten Formula 3000 driver Bruno Zanardi in a shootout to win the F1 seat.
Jenson joined Williams with high expectations from experts and fans alike as many saw his young age and success in karting as a sign of a great Champion.
Button certainly didn’t disappoint in his first races. Although the Williams team had been a mighty force towards the end of the 1990s, Jenson joined the team at a time when it was about to drop steadily to a mid-field-level outfit.
Jenson debuted in Australia, but he really started to turn heads when he finished P6 in only his second race. He also managed to qualify third at Spa and recorded his highest finish for Williams in Germany (P4). However, Frank Williams had other plans and had been trying to entice Juan Pablo Montoya to his team for some time. When Montoya finally agreed to join the Williams team, he did so at the unfortunate expense of Button’s race seat.
This was undoubtedly difficult for Jenson, but Frank Williams kept him contracted with the team for a further two years, and Button quickly found a new race seat at Benetton.
I think Jenson’s start in mid-field teams was probably one of the best situations to be in as a rookie in F1. Whilst I think Lewis Hamilton did well starting in a top-three team, I think he has made, and arguably continues to make pretty big mistakes. These mistakes are often taken way out of proportion because Hamilton drives for McLaren.
Don’t forget that Hamilton has only been in F1 for four years and many of his mistakes would have been chalked up as rookie errors had he been in, say, a Force India. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to start at the back either; I don’t know how the current guys cope trying to show their skills in terrible cars like the Virgin or HRT!
If you join a mid-field team, you can put in solid performances and if you're good enough, outshine your car and maybe do something amazing. The benefits can be seen if we consider a driver who is also approaching his 200th GP.
I have chosen to compare Jenson’s career so far with that of Fernando Alonso (170 races). I have done this because in many ways the two men have had similar experiences.
Funnily enough, these two drivers first crossed paths around the early 2000s.
The Start of a Difficult Period
Teams: Benetton, Renault, BAR
Jenson joined Benetton in 2001 and stayed at the team in 2002 when it was re-branded as Renault F1. This period of Jenson’s career was extremely difficult as his on/off performances on the track mixed with his somewhat playboy lifestyle off the track.
This led Renault Team principal Flavio Briatore to make some pretty harsh remarks about his driver, and he was even rumoured to offer Button a chance to walk from the team when it was still Benetton.
Though Button picked up in form in 2002, it had been too late to save his Renault's career as a young Minardi driver was beginning to turn heads.
Fernando Alonso had started his career just one year after Button and although he didn’t actually score any points for Minardi, notable performances led top teams to barter for the services of the young driver.
Fernando signed for Renault in 2002 and seemed to find himself in the right place at the right time. Of course, Alonso has been long credited as a driver that can help push a team, but in the early 2000s Renault was also able to build a great team of experts and started to challenge for wins by 2003 (when Alonso scored his first victory at the Hungarian GP).
Jenson may have left a team that was about to go on to great things, but he too had a great opportunity to grow with his new team when he signed for BAR Honda in 2003. Jenson outperformed his former World Champion Team mate Jacques Villeneuve at nearly every round of the 2003 season, but ultimately BAR’s 2003 car just wasn’t able to provide Button with top level finishes.
The Beginning of Something Special?
Teams: BAR Honda, Honda F Racing
The years 2004-2006 brought about very different periods for Fernando and Jenson.
Jenson recorded his greatest F1 season up to that point in his career in 2004. He managed to record his first ever podium, pole position, and finished the Drivers’ Championship third (BAR came second in the Constructors’ Championship)! But, in 2005 the team’s great promise simply fizzled away. Button could only finish the Championship in P9 having suffered from appalling reliability and having been banned for three races after the FIA found BAR guilty of using two fuel tanks that, when drained, made the car illegally underweight.
Although Jenson did manage to score his first ever win at the Hungarian Grand Prix one year later, and despite scoring more points than any other driver in the final six races of the season, 2006 was also marred with reliability issues. Nevertheless, it was an extremely important season for Jenson as his first win finally silenced many of his noisy critics. Furthermore, by winning under such unstable conditions, Button was able to establish himself as something of a wet weather specialist.
So, 2004 was great for Button and 2006 had its upsides, but when taken against Fernando’s three seasons at Renault, it’s hard to argue that Jenson was in a good position.
Whilst 2004 brought no wins for Fernando, it acted as a great springboard into 2005 and 2006 when the Renault man would claim his two World Championships, at the time making him the youngest ever Double World Champion (a title that will be lost if Sebastian Vettel wins the 2011 season).
Fernando had two phenomenal seasons and joined McLaren for 2007 just as it looked as if Renault’s crown was slipping. In short, Fernando was now in the position to move to Championship teams, whilst Jenson was loyal to Honda, but ultimately unable to break into the likes of Ferrari or McLaren.
Teams: Honda F1 Racing
These two seasons were far from perfect for either driver, but again I think Fernando had a much better time and ultimately found himself in a stronger position when considering contracts.
In 2007 and 2008, Honda just seemed to drop the ball completely. The RA107 and RA108 were unreliable, and slow. Jenson’s highest position in 2007 was P5, and in 2008 he could only manage one P8. Though many fans and commentators believed that Jenson was far better than his car suggested, with only one win in eight seasons the once promising driver seemed to be turning into a has-been.
Now, Fernando Alonso is my other F1 hero, so my opinion on his 2007 season will no doubt differ from those of Hamilton fans. However, Fernando was able to win four races in his troubled season at McLaren and finished joint second in the standings. By now, the Double World Champion had established himself as one of the best drivers in the world and although he had done himself no favours at McLaren, the only thing holding him back from a dream move to Ferrari was a contract issue with Scudaria’s now unwanted Kimi Raikkonen.
Fernando found himself back at Renault whilst Ferrari waited to off-load Raikkonen. Although this was somewhat of a wilderness period for Alonso, he still managed to finish his two years at Renault with two wins and four podiums.
Of course the Renault was a better car than the Hondas it battled against, but by outperforming it, Fernando was able to sustain interest in him, whilst Jenson floundered at Honda.
Team: Brawn GP
When Honda decided to scrap their 2008 car to develop the 2009 design, many people were hopeful that Jenson Button would at least be challenging for wins. Thus, it came as a huge shock when in December 2008 Honda announced their withdrawal from Formula One.
With driver lineups sorted for 2009 and no significant option for 2010, it looked as if Jenson’s career might be over. But, when Ross Brawn and Nick Fry fought to salvage the team, Button’s loyalty turned out to be his greatest ever reward.
With a full season’s head start, Brawn GP romped to an historic debut one-two finish in the season’s opener. Button then went on to win a further five races and although his form dipped towards the end of the season, I don’t think anyone could claim that Jenson wasn’t special after his mammoth performance at the penultimate race, in which he fought from P14 to finish P5 and World Champion.
For the first time in his Formula One career, Jenson Button was finally in the perfect position. He was an extremely desirable driver and had far far greater control over his destiny.
Ultimately he made what I believe was the smartest decision of his life so far by moving to McLaren.
Here and Now
Years: 2010 through July 31st, 2011
Whilst Brawn GP morphed into Mercedes GP and unsurprisingly fell by the wayside, McLaren maintained its position as a top team and Jenson entered the 2010 and 2011 seasons with a fantastic opportunity to win more titles.
Now at Ferrari, Fernando Alonso was also back at the front where he belonged, and both drivers were contenders in what many fans believe to be the greatest title fight in history.
Of course, Sebastian Vettel became World Champion in 2010 after a hideously dull final race, but neither Jenson Button nor Fernando Alonso had anything to be particularly sad about.
At Ferrari, Alonso had established himself as the lead driver, and at McLaren many people commented on Button’s calming effect on his fiery teammate. Jenson’s laid back attitude seemed to really gel with his team in general at McLaren and I think Jenson began to build a far stronger relationship with his team than Hamilton.
In 2011, both Alonso and Button have been pretty powerless against the might of the Red Bull car, but crucially both drivers have established themselves as wise, talented and likeable guys.
I think as the 2011 season has unfolded Jenson has been able to grow even closer to his team and prove many more critics wrong, especially through his outstanding victory in Canada.
Whilst I think Lewis Hamilton is a fantastic driver, he has made some fundamental errors this year and I think the team are starting to split a little with Lewis. I truly believe that if you asked Martin Whitmarsh who he’d rather keep for 2012, he’d choose Jenson.
So what can I conclude from all of this then?
Well, I think that both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button are at a stage in their careers where they can be regarded as greats. Do I think Double World Champion Alonso is a better driver than Button? No, I don’t think so. I think both men are great, but Fernando has simply made better choices at the right times.
As I write this article, Jenson Button has won one World Championship, 11 races, and a total of 675 career ponts in 200 races.
Fernando Alonso has won two Championships, 27 races, and has totalled 974 points in 170 races.
Fernando has just been able to put himself in better teams at the right times, partly through extreme skill, but also through luck. This is the same for every driver on the grid.
I couldn’t think of a better outcome for Jenson Button’s 200th race at the place of his maiden victory. Whatever Jenson Button does next, I believe he has earned his place as one of Formula One’s greatest ever drivers.