Jenson Button: A nice guy finishing last

If the reports are to be believed, the insiders have their facts straight and those reading between the lines of his cryptic recent responses in the media, Jenson Button’s Formula One career is entering its final lap.

In 16 seasons, Button has matured from a stubble-less rookie, plucked from obscurity ahead of the experienced Bruno Junquiera, to established and respected World Champion.

Button, more than most, has experienced nearly every high and low there is to in the sport. But as the chequered flag falls on his time dining at motorsport’s top table, he will not be remembered as one of the sport’s greats.

Breaking into Formula One is an expensive and unforgiving task. Dozens of ‘future world champions’ have come and gone without ever excelling. Juan Pablo Montoya. Vitantonio Liuzzi. Nick Heidfeld. Flashes of brilliance, undoubted speed but lacking that real cutting edge to make it to the very top.

When Button entered the sport in 2000, boosted by a brief test with Prost and winning the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Award for the best young British talent in 1998, being bankrolled by a sponsor was less important. Pure speed was.

He made his mark in his debut season. Pitted against a tough teammate by the surname Schumacher (not him, the other one), Button showed glimpses of class beyond his years, qualifying strongly and making the fewest mistakes of any driver in F1 that year.

It was much of a slow burner for Button though. There was no ‘future world champion’ buzz about him that Alonso had in Minardi in 2001, that Vettel had with BMW in 2006 or that Hamilton had in that infamous oh-so-nearly 2007 season. This seemed to follow Button through his career.

Character building seasons with Benetton, later becoming Renault, epitomised a flaw in Jenson’s driving that he was never able to shake off. Place him in a fast car, set up to his liking with a front end he could dance with and Button was nearly untouchable. Indeed in 2004 and 2005, stellar years of BAR Honda, the man from Frome was matching the best in the sport.

Stunning qualifying displays at Imola and Montreal were followed up by a succession of podiums, and best of the rest when the sport was dominated by Ferrari. However, the years that followed, the ‘Earth Dreams’ Honda was slow and a handful and Button was nowhere. Yet as Fernando Alonso proved recently at Ferrari, the very best could wring the neck of a slow car and wrestle it to respectability. Button was never able to do that.

Ironically during these successful years with BAR Honda, when the wretched one-lap qualifying was all the rage, Button’s raw pace in the format was remarkable. For a man who latterly was criticised for not being a good qualifier, he used to be one of the best at the format. Button would concede that he set his car up for the race and not qualifying. Outscoring Lewis Hamilton would prove this point to the extreme. Yet you could never argue that Button was the fastest driver.

His forte came in changeable conditions. This was the one area where he was unmatched throughout his career. His maiden F1 win at Hungary in 2006 came when he made the best of indifferent weather, made the right call on tyres and earned an impressive victory. No F1 driver had ever won a World Championship by taking more than 100 Grand Prix to win a race. Button’s standing was strong but never world class. Would a world class driver have taken that long to find his way to a top team or take a slower car to an impressive race win?

Indeed off the track, Button’s early years in the sport were dogged by questionable decisions. Criticised by Flavio Briatore, former Renault team principal, for his ‘playboy’ lifestyle, Button’s reputation took another hit when he announced he’d re-signed for Williams only to be forced to extricate himself from that deal when he saw the Williams car losing BMW power and slipping down the grid. He rebuilt this as he matured.

Still well loved by his teams, he proved great loyalty to Honda through those dark years. When the Japanese manufacturer pulled the plug at the end of 2008, Button was the man to galvanise the factory to keep working hard, and keep believing that a solution (and a buyer) could be found. And when the money was found – wow!

2009 saw the stars align for Button. In a car that exploited a loophole in the regulations, one of only three to use a ‘double diffuser’, Button effectively won the championship within seven races – before all the other cars caught up. This season highlighted most of the Briton’s strengths and weaknesses. In the best car, set up to his liking, he was nearly untouchable. When the opposition caught up and Brawn lost their competitive advantage, Button struggled, started being beaten by his teammate and famously uttering at the British Grand Prix, ‘what have you done to this car?’ Actually Jenson – what had it done to you?

And yet he battled as best he could, typified by the drive from down the field to finish 5th in the Brazilian Grand Prix and seal his maiden world championship.

This world title showed a marked difference in what set Button apart from the true greats in the sport. For some drivers, becoming World Champion is enough. A life’s goal achieved. Take Damon Hill. A fast driver, yes. The fastest, no. But in a car that was class of the field, he won a title and you could argue his drive was never the same.

When I chatted to Mark Webber a couple of weeks ago, he said he’d have happily retired had he won the title in 2010 (Webber lost out in the last race of the season to Sebastian Vettel). I sense the same in Button. I don’t believe he had the out-and-out determination to totally obliterate the field. Some drivers (Vettel, Schumacher, Senna) aren’t satisfied with just winning. They wanted to dominate. Did Button? I don’t think so. It’s not a criticism, but merely a different mindset. I’d argue the likes of Button, Webber, Fisichella, Rosberg, Barrichello, Montoya and Massa would settle for the one world title and retire happy. The true greats of the sport would not settle for that.

His move to McLaren showed a real lighter side to Button’s character. Completed by his world championship win, Button matched the best racer in the sport, Lewis Hamilton. He was rarely quicker, but used experience to simply accumulate and get the job done, and this made him hugely popular with the team.

Arguably the best two of Button’s 15 victories in F1 came with McLaren. That famous drive from last to overtake Sebastian Vettel on the last lap in Canada in 2011 typified his excellence in wet/dry conditions. Belgium in 2012 was his most complete weekend. Fast all weekend, qualifying on pole and crushing the field for the win. Again – a perfect car setup, nobody could live with him.

However when the car become troublesome, lacking downforce, Button struggled and McLaren slipped down the field. Inexperienced teammates in Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen were beaten but not with the convincing fashion you might expect from a man with over 200 Grand Prix and a world championship to his name.

And so to what could prove to be his swansong. Unfairly languishing at the back of the grid in a car that failed to allow Button to fully show the best of his abilities. That said, alongside a world champion in Fernando Alonso, Button has held his own, a tenth or two behind but there in the races.

Yet there’s only so much joy one can obtain in challenging for 13th. Button himself has admitted his ‘joy’ is on the wane. We’ve even seen uncharacteristic errors in recent seasons too, colliding with Pastor Maldonado in China in 2014 and Singapore in 2015. Would the calculated Button have made such mistakes if fighting for wins? No. But he seems more a mellow and charismatic figure, happy to speak his mind when needed and keep his spirits up when before he’d be a little tetchy, in spite of such brain fades.

In that Singapore race, his engineer instructed Button to manage the brakes, tyres and gearbox, all whilst trying to maintain his position on the edge of the points in a car that handled poorly and was slow on the straights. Alonso in Canada came over the radio and said it was embarrassing. Button’s response in the night race, “Anything else? Shall I rub my tummy and pat my head?”

If Jenson Button is to leave Formula One, he’ll leave with a head held high and a reputation at its strongest. A gentleman, courteous, accommodating, friendly, fit and fast. His love of triathlons and keeping in shape are impressive for a man approaching 40. Being the third most experienced driver in F1 history, despite his various racing flaws, is testament to his ability to build teams around him and his humble, likeable attitude.

Will he be remembered as the fastest driver? Vettel (Red Bull) and Raikkonen (McLaren) claim that tag. Will he be remembered as the most complete driver? Alonso (Ferrari) has that to himself? Could he claim to be the best racer and overtaker? Hamilton (McLaren) and Schumacher (Ferrari) trump him there.

Will he be remembered as a great? No. Will he be remembered as a great man. Certainly.