Jenson Button and the End
After 17 seasons in F1 Jenson Button will bow out of the sport this weekend. Though he began as a rookie sensation and ultimately found great success, the British driver's path to glory was far from simple.
Illustration by Francesca Miles
"It can't get worse than this," Jenson Button told the media after his first Formula 1 qualifying session. The 20-year-old British rookie had secured a disappointing 21st position on the 22-car grid, beating only the Minardi of fellow newcomer Gaston Mazzacane. Button was clearly flustered by the experience – he had also crashed in practice – and probably didn't fancy the prospect of coming back and doing it all again a few hundred times more.
Fortunately, there were better days ahead. But that Saturday afternoon in Melbourne was by no means the last time that Button concluded "It can't get worse than this". His career has been long and ultimately very successful – but rarely has it been simple.
When you consider the numbers, Button's time in F1 feels like an epic, one that has lasted 17 seasons and in excess of 300 grand prix weekends. That adds up to more than a thousand practice and qualifying sessions, countless flights in and out of dozens of countries across the globe, a terrifying number of interviews, and a grand total of gear changes I'm not prepared to even guess at. Button began his career competing against Jean Alesi (born 1964) and will end it racing Max Verstappen (born 1997). He has gone from the scream of V10 engines to the lame murmur of the current V6, on slicks and grooved tyres, from cars plastered in cigarette logos to a time when grand prix machines are largely devoid of sponsors. It is fair to say that he has raced in different eras of the sport's history.
His haul of 304 starts (with one to go) places him third on the all-time list, behind only Michael Schumacher (306) and record-holder Rubens Barrichello (322). His run of entries is unbroken for more than a decade, since he sat out Spain and Monaco in 2005 as punishment for technical infringements by his BAR-Honda team.
Having become such an established elder statesman of F1, it is easy to forget that Button was once a very raw rookie just two months out of his teens. He landed the Williams drive off the back of only two years in single-seater racing, and after a stellar first season with the team was quite rightly tagged a star of the future.
But he seemed to lose focus and momentum after being replaced for 2001 by Juan Pablo Montoya (rather like replacing a ballerina with a bull), slipping into the middle of the grid without ever making the breakthrough to become a full-blown star. He was in his fifth year of F1 before even finishing on the podium, though he made up for lost time by taking 10 top-three finishes during the 2004 campaign.
This, however, was one of several false dawns in Button's career, with no major breakthrough – and crucially no first win – following that run of podiums. In 2005 his team were caught cheating, and as Jenson moved into his mid-twenties his status had shifted from star-in-the-making to something of a frustrated nearlyman. He was certainly not washed up, but the early promise felt exaggerated. The likes of Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso had all staked greater claims to be Michael Schumacher's F1 heir.
Button's first win finally came at a wild, rain-soaked Hungarian Grand Prix in 2006. It was a win that showed the Brit at his finest: wonderfully smooth and adaptive to track conditions, an intuitive and intelligent driver who hadn't been getting the breaks his talent deserved. The photographs of him as he celebrated afterwards – eyes wide, arms stretched out in joy – sum up the huge amount of work that had gone into this win, as well as the suffering and frustration he'd experienced.
Hard earned and deserved though it was, Hungary 2006 was another false dawn, and perhaps the most brutal of his career. Two appalling years followed as the Honda team – who had purchased full control from BAR in 2006 – utterly failed to produce machinery worthy of Button and teammate Rubens Barrichello's abilities. Over the next two years he finished 15th and 18th in the standings, and at the conclusion of the 2008 campaign Honda pulled the plug. The team was effectively scuttled and, with little time before the new season, Button had no F1 prospects. It looked to be the end of his top-flight career.
What followed neatly demonstrates how strange Jenson's career has been. For most drivers, success tends to breed success: the first win gives way to more trips to the top of the podium, and good performances create better job opportunities. Conversely, consistent bad results tend to hasten a driver's demise.
But Jenson's career has run counter to this logic. Up to the winter of 2008/09, breakthroughs had been followed by significant setbacks, good news by bad. As such, it was perfectly in keeping with his time in the sport that dreadful 2007 and '08 campaigns were followed by his greatest triumph.
F1 doesn't really do fairytales – it's too ruthless and mechanical for that sort of thing. Money talks loudly and incessantly, and it tends to win out in a sport where you're so heavily reliant on the car. You can't get a bunch of talented people together and win against the odds – the sheer might of a major automotive manufacturer, or an energy drinks company, will simply crush you.
But what happened in 2009 – when Button and the Brawn GP squad, born out of the ashes of Honda's failed outfit, stormed to the world title – comes pretty close.
There are caveats: the presence of engineering genius Ross Brawn, the money Honda had already invested in the brilliant and innovative 2009 car, and a supply of Mercedes engines to bolt into the back. Add the talents of Button and Barrichello behind the wheel, and you have a very handy package.
But that ignores the turbulence that had affected the team since Honda's withdrawal, which was announced just weeks before Christmas 2008. There was a considerable drop in budget, which led to numerous staff layoffs, and the sense of uncertainty it created must have badly affected what was left of the team.
Come the first race, however, it was clear that something special was happening. Button and Barrichello qualified and finished first and second. Button would go on to win six of the opening seven races to build a mighty championship lead. Though results dipped thereafter, he was sufficiently far ahead to secure the title with a race to spare. Cue a thoroughly warranted, albeit woefully out of tune, rendition of "We Are The Champions".
Button's world title was made to look fairly easy by the fact he had a very good car underneath him. That is a little simplistic. He dominated the early part of the season, while the Brawn's advantage lasted, whereas Barrichello didn't win a single race until Button was way off in the distance. Rubens was no mug, but Jenson blew him away when it mattered.
And by mid-season Red Bull's car had become the class of the field, while traditional heavyweights like Ferrari and McLaren were recovering. This knocked Jenson down the order, but he remained composed and consistent, picking up the points he needed to be champion.
For 2010 he moved to McLaren and has since enjoyed some deserved late-career security at the British outfit, initially forming a very marketable pairing with Lewis Hamilton. He's won eight races for the team, often in the changeable conditions that he is so adept at managing (Australia 2010 and Canada 2011 spring to mind as two of his finest performances).
His McLaren years will not be remembered in the same way as his Brawn exploits, but in some respects they were Button's best. In particular the 2011 season – when he comprehensively beat Hamilton, and finished second in the world championship – brought together everything that was good about Jenson the F1 driver. He was quick, opportunistic, and calm behind the wheel, and delivered a virtuoso performance to win the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.
Since 2013 the team's fortunes have waned, and Jenson has not stood on a podium since winning the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix (though he did take third at the 2014 Australian race, albeit several hours after the fact).
If you were to look at only the simple facts of Jenson Button's career, it would all seem quite predictable. A rookie sensation who became world champion, enjoyed a long spell driving for McLaren and racked up more than 300 starts. Brilliant, if a bit dull.
But it has been anything but boring. His career has not followed the traditional path of a much-hyped phenomenon. Whereas the likes of Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton rose inexorably to the top, Button has traversed the peaks and troughs of grand prix racing. Just when things seemed to be looking up, his fortunes would change for the worse and another uphill struggle ensued. And, just when it seemed that his F1 career was over, everything fell beautifully into place. The talent was always there, of course, but it required a little luck to fully express itself. No one would begrudge him that.
And no one will begrudge him the opportunity to go out on his own terms, to drive a final race that he knows is his farewell to the sport. Jenson's enthusiasm seems to have been draining for three seasons now, since his father, John, died suddenly in January 2014. Up to this point, John had missed just one of his son's 247 grands prix. You get the sense that the following years have not brought the same enjoyment for Jenson. Motor racing may ultimately be a solitary pursuit, but for Button it was very much something he shared with his father. He's not alone in this respect. John had been there when Jenson was a star in karting, where his black crash helmet with yellow chevrons gave him an almost demonic look that belied his cheerful off-track demeanour; and he was there for the world title success nearly two decades later. It is almost as if grand prix racing became less a passion and more a job for Jenson without his old man around.
Nevertheless, Button is a racer and he'll be driving something next year, alongside his scaled-down role with McLaren. But F1 will be poorer without him. A genuinely gifted and uniquely intelligent driver, like Alain Prost remade with a cheery demeanour and slight Somerset twang, he has earned his place in the sport's history books. Getting there was never simple, but the best things in life rarely are.