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Jenson Button: one of F1’s bravest competitors

It isn’t easy being a certain Jenson Button. That lanky frame and superior fitness levels that have helped the 35 year old Englishman claim a driver’s title (2009) and 15 clinical race wins are often marked with a taint of allegations and enough pain that could cause an entire nation to weep for one of its brightest racing talents ever.

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When Honda announced its comeback into F1’s grueling and sifting world of racing agreeing to join hands with McLaren in 2015, there wouldn’t have been a more happier person on earth than that of Jenson Button, who last won a race way back in 2012 at Brazil’s Interlagos’s arduous struggle.

But little could have he guessed that the partnership supposed to have shattered the hopes of Ferrari and the likes of Williams and that of Renault Lotus given it’s newfound appeal and vigor would actually give its own driver, Button- nightmares to contend with. Teaming with former Double World Champion Fernando Alonso, F1’s popular bad boy, the Jenson- Alonso partnership was touted to be the next big challenge for other drivers to mount following the dominant Mercedes show scripted by Hamilton and Rosberg, two of the best drivers out there.

After 16 back to back seasons since he first emerged as the tall and skinny Brit on F1’s ever demanding firmament, one that boasts of unique challenges and stiff asks, Jenson, an outstandingly talented driver and athlete par excellence is a grim shadow lurking in Honda McLaren’s  pit garages after every race. The nicest bloke in F1 who is still persisting amidst great problems with the McLaren F1 car has recently been signed on to race for 2016, but he is far from happy.

Though he is still to race for the hitherto dampener Honda-McLaren partnership, Jenson Button, in what could be his final season (2016) may just be grinning for a car with which he can at least compete, if not win races. While what happens next year is a distant reality as of now, time might be ripe to look back at one of F1’s most charming and gentlemanly driver’ successful career.

Breaking into Formula One

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The charming Somerset lad broke into the top echelon of Motor racing way back in 2000. Formula One, at the height of its technologically powered approach made inroads into literal re-packaging of the dynamics of modern racing cars and was perhaps the most sort after sport in the entire world one would say, away from the passionate and electrifying charms of Soccer and Tennis. The cars were way quicker, swifter and lighter and the drivers back then, whether of world champion quality or not gave their all to contest in magnanimous battles that were fought as much with precision of the machine and that of technology as that of individual driver capability. Those were the lesser complicated times as compared to the days we are living in today where at the behest of the slightest of changes or drifts in the patterns of car design, tyre compound structuring or that of the altercations on the circuits leave drivers contesting in a literal savage war.

Off course this does not indicate a slightest affirmation to the fact that F1 was any lighter in its competitiveness.

In his maiden F1 season where Jenson drove for BMW Williams F1, the odds of securing frequent podium finishes with the Williams FW22 weren’t exactly inspiring. With BMW as the first time engine supplier to the celebrated Frank Williams’ outfit, a team that at present has the likes of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas competing in the present season and one that featured the legendary Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill in 1994, there weren’t many who still looked at a rookie seriously whilst the likes of Michael Schumacher were there mostly at the front of the grid. But, with Jenson things were different. At the age of 20, he, at that point of time became the youngest point scorer of all time in Formula One history. The memorable date was March 26, 2000 where at the Brazilian grand Prix, BMW Williams’ Jenson Button secured a personal best 9th place finish at Interlagos and in the process earned the team’s first and best points in a race finish that season. Together with Michael’s younger brother, Ralf, Jenson would go on to dominate headlines world-over for his commanding presence and exuberance in the racing car. While Ralf who finished 11th at Brazil, Jenson who finished 2 places ahead also ensured that his would be the name that would power Williams to some promising drives and helped himself to manage 12 points in his debut season, finishing 8th overall in the driver standings.

The Benetton and Renault years and beyond

 

jenson buttonLife is never easy for a youngster competing at the highest stage at Formula One. It never was for Jenson whose pain and struggle at McLaren Honda is for everyone to see. In 2001 and 2002, where Jenson raced for Benetton (B201) and Renault (R202) respectively, his promising talent never quite had the support it needed especially from the power unit of his car. The Benetton’s frail power unit failed to secure the energy and vibe a driver like Jenson needed to take his talent to promising outcomes. His Renault engine in his R202 where he raced alongside Jarno Trulli, gave way to consistent blow outs that didn’t just hurt the young drivers but threatened their hopes to revive an already dampened spirit. Jenson still worked hard to find his way to seventh in the driver’s standings, scoring 14 points in all, 5 more than teammate Trulli. The most promising race finishe came at Malaysia (4) where Button slated for a podium finish had to crawl his way to the checkered flag owing to his Renault’s persistent suspension problem.

The memorable days were still at large and young Button was still burning with an incessant desire to strike big. Partnering with Jacque Villeneuve in 2003 for British American Racing (known as BAR), Jenson who hitherto was also perceived as the “lazy playboy” had to fight hard to not only break an image that was nothing but a misnomer for his mercurial talent but had to battle it out with his prodigiously talented teammate. In the first six races that year, Button arguably the less paced driver outpaced Villeneuve scoring 8 points in total while working ever so hard to improve a volatile relation with a difficult partner. Some inconsistencies mid season didn’t help his cause and a sudden change in race partner in the form of newborn BAR racer Takuma Sato, another in the long list of F1’s missing acts (those who came and vanished with a blink), Jenson finished 9th in the overall rankings.

Memorable 2004 season and his first podium finish

 

Jenson Button(GBR) Benetton B201 and Mike Gascoyne Formula One Testing, Estoril, 7-16 February 2001

Jenson Button(GBR) Benetton B201 and Mike Gascoyne
Formula One Testing, Estoril, 7-16 February 2001

Four years into the sport and still not having earned a podium finish didn’t help Jenson nor did it do any justice to his vast talent. But this was to change suddenly at Malaysia. Jenson, came out of nowhere at finished a dominant 3rd at Kuala Lampur’s Sepang circuit, known for giving fans quite a few thrills. As the onlookers noticed a visibly jubilant Jesnon Button, his seniors, Schumacher included, gave rave reviews for the Englishman’s commanding pace at a season known for BAR’s impressive domination. Jenson, followed up his Malaysia act by securing another impressive podium finish at Bahrain, one of his most successful circuits in terms of point scoring. He was to replicate his 3rd place finish here and do something greater at Imola, the next round that followed Bahrain Grand Prix, at Italy. At the 10th anniversary of Senna and Ratzenberger fatalities, Jenson sparkled in an emotional race, clocking up the speed charts with commanding pace. Not only did he secure his personal best, second place finish at the San Marino Grand Prix, he gave the likes of Michael and Juan Pablo Montoya great competition to secure a sterling drive for BAR F1. He secured an emphatic 1:19: 753 record as his fastest lap. He finished the season standing 3rd overall in the driver standings. And, in the years to follow, he continued to battle poor race strategies and engine troubles as a part of his racing outfits to emerge as a top draw in Formula One.

BAR’s 2005 and HONDA Stint

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BAR Racing in 2005 were a miserable shadow of their previous season’s prominence. They finished a lowly 6th in the constructors championship and their top driver Button was visibly livid standing at 9th, a great dip from his 2004’s best ever finish at 3 in driver standings. In a season marked by feud between Nick Fry and Team Principal David Richards and marred incessantly by Michelin’s disastrous tyre compounds, it took Jenson and teammate Sato 9 races to score their first championship points. However things were set for a change for Jenson as far as his 2006-08 seasons were concerned.

Making a foray into Honda, most certainly the last F1 team he may ever drive for and one where presently, alongside Fernando Alonso, we are seeing a struggling Jesnon Button, the young driver first broke out amidst intense speculation about his role at the Japanese based outfit for 2006.

Showing great speed, the competitive Button gave the likes of Kimi and Alonso, both his age and also his contemporaries in 2015, stiff competition. Finishing again on the podium at Malaysia, Button earned rave reviews for his mixed bag performance at Honda in 2006, a season marked by tectonic change for the Brit. While his battles with Alonso and Raikkonen at Canada, Germany and Hungary went on to confirm his mettle as F1’s top young driver alongside the exciting Spaniard and the cool Finn, by the end of the 2006 season, Jenson who earned either a 4th or 5th place finish in each of the last 5 races earned more points than any driver that season. It was here at Hungaroring in 2006 that Jenson sprayed the champagne standing atop the podium for the first time ever in his career, waving to fans proudly indicating that whilst fighting his inner demons, he had truly arrived on the grand stage, even though it took him 6 long years.

His 2007’s aerodynamically poor and marginally quicker Honda vis-a-vis contemporaries Ferrari and McLaren earned Jenson the ire of stalwarts like Nigel Mansel. The season that belonged to the ice cool Kimi Raikkonen saw nothing special from Button’s underpowered Honda RA 107.

Perhaps no other driver at least in the last decade of Formula One has had to change teams and fight persistently the ever rising competition ever so hard as that of Britain’s Jenson Button. Following Honda’s sudden announcement of quitting the game altogether in 2009 claiming insufficient funds, the talented Brit found himself without a roof to race under. They say, good things come to those who wait and, in Jenson’s case the greatest of his successes came to him in 2009, after nearly a decade of being in Formula One.

Brawn GP Stint

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It is a huge respite not just for Jenson fans but for racing fans in general that this tall modern day icon of Motor Racing, did manage after all to secure a World Championship. That said, it is somewhat strange and unsatisfying to note that a driver of his class and character did after all contend with just a single world championship title in a career that lasted 16 seasons. Taking a fifty percent pay hike to accommodate a more experienced driver by his side at the famous Brawn GP team, 29 year old Jenson Button partnered with Rubens Barrichello, perhaps one of the most talented and yet unluckiest drivers on the grid for a large part of his career.

He won his only World Championship title that year when Honda announced that they would race as Brawn GP, the famous name founded under the tutelage and inspiration of Ross Brawn.

Nobody in F1’s 2009 season, had expected that by the end of the championship season Brawn GP would be standing on top of the podium, the team themselves. Of the stipulated 17 races, they went on to pocket 6 commanding wins. Winning the season opener at Melbourne in Australia and securing dominant race wins at Malaysia, Bahrain, Spain, Monaco and Turkey, the world championship crown had been bagged by a team that everyone saw as an underdog and the star performer of the Ross Brawn powered set-up was a young Jenson Button, who then was not even 30. Quick, talented and supremely confident, Button’s rise to the top in a season when non expected him to do anything special is an indicator that with supreme will one can perhaps do the unthinkable, as did the 29 year old suave Englishman.

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In a season marked by Brawn GP’s controversial diffuser design and flawed pit strategies, favoring Barrichello over the quicker Button, it was Jenson’s supreme will that lasted for the first half of the season during which he drove what he calls his best ever drive at Monaco. The second half of the season saw Jenson supported by great luck. Having secured such a high margin of lead over other drivers in first 8 races in 2009 allowed a rather inconsistent Jenson to contend with a dismal late season dip in form, allowing him to still keep his hopes until Abu Dhabi arrived. With a third place finish and where he outscored Barrichello, he became World Champion amidst nerve wrecking response from racing fans, world over. Holding the dubious distinction of gathering 169 race entries before he went on to secure his World Championship crown makes Button the finest example of the adage that nice guys don’t always finish last.

The extremely productive Vodafone McLaren years

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Being a world champion is never easy. If he is to be believed, then the pressure of claiming the title in 2010 got so much to his nerves that Button at point of time was contemplating a minor sabbatical from his favorite sport.

But, we know him as a fine competitor and one who perhaps akin to “Aussie Grit” Mark Webber plays that hard patient game. It wouldn’t have been easy for Jenson Button to partner with Lewis Hamilton, the double world champion and one who by 2010 was visibly quicker and more popular than his compatriot from Britain, the good looking Jenson.

A three year multi million pound deal with England’s Vodafone Mercedes powered the Jenson show for 3 tumultuous years from 2010-12. Button who finished 5th, 2nd and 5th respectively in his highly charged up years at McLaren Mercedes was somewhat competitive while largely seeming disenchanted at having been outperformed by Lewis and being clearly preferred as the team’s No.2 driver. Bouts of consistencies were undone by constant lack of competitiveness that resulted his brilliant 2nd finish in 2011 being a frail reminder of his withering that came the very next season in 2012.

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Jenson stayed back with the team in 2013 was to partner with Sergio Perez, clearly not the most popular driver on the present grid. Happy to contend with outgoing Lewis who made way for Mercedes F1, the breakaway of Merc from McLaren, Button was content being the team’s no.1 driver, a position his own talent and capability clearly warrants from his team. Losing his dad midway into the F1 season only marred an underperforming Button whose on track inconsistencies were being cluttered in F1’s caustic world where a driver is considered only as good as his last race. Button who finished 8th that year did little to impress critics who hailed newcomer Magnussen, another new partner as the quicker of the two McLaren drivers.

2014 and 2015

Although he earned 126 points in all from another average season at McLaren Mercedes which would also be his last, Jenson was beginning to get really worked up. The mild engines of F1 in 2014 season that had freshly undergone a tectonic shift having being mandatorily scrapped from their  earlier design conceptions and power packaging and made into a hybrid avatar didn’t just not help the cause of driver’s like Jenson whose teams found it increasingly hard to adopt what many hail as “F1’s mindless shift of competition in recent times” but gave solid franchises such  as Ferrari to think a lot about. With a poor 2014 season that was a dampener for anyone who didn’t feature in Mercedes, the only visible gainer from the Hybrid era signaled doom for the rest of the 9 teams.button formula 1

Come 2015 and Button’s destiny was to succumb to an all time low. In what is being rumored to be his last ever outing in an F1 car considering the big failure of Honda and McLaren in producing the engine that still has a long way to go before it can gives the likes of Jenson and Alonso a competitive car, leave aside a ‘race-winning one’, times haven’t changed for the better for Button.

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His 15 race wins marked by 8 pole positions and 50 podium finishes, most of them coming during his excellent performances of 2006, 2009 and 2012 seasons somehow fall short of this super talented man’s abilities. His impressive performances amidst a testing career have shown flair but aren’t as pronounced statistically as they have been branded with mighty expectations and flourish. In a long career, Jenson has waged lonely battles in the cockpit of cars that have been both- damp squibs and flawlessly quick, but for his ability to battle track challenges and continuously keep up with the challenges of the excruciatingly demanding sport for 16 long years- we take our hat off to the gentle giant of Formula One.

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Dev Tyagi

Dravid, Black, Lara, Rajasthan, Raikkonen, Finland, Tea, Deserts, Morrison, Espionage, World Peace and disruptive ideas.

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