I don’t normally make much of driver milestones in F1; usually occasions when some kind of cake gets presented because no-one can think of anything better to symbolise a numerically important moment.
But I’ll make an exception for Jenson Button’s 200th GP, about which we will hear a lot this weekend. It’s a lot of races and the narrative of his career, which started at Williams in 2000 is a real journey. From boy, to playboy, to frustrated racer, to world champion.
Britain’s highest ever points scorer in F1, eight more points will take him to Number 4 in the all time lists behind Schumacher, Alonso and the driver he admires most, Alain Prost – although the much higher points yields these days rather skew these statistics.
I’ve covered all of Button’s career, witnessed the arc, with its few ups and its many downs, leading to the extraordinary moment when he won his World Championship in 2009. Button got the job done, just the way he and his father John always intended.
I commentated on his first win here in Hungary in 2006; a moment many people thought might never come.
My mind goes back to my first proper encounter with him and John, at Macau in 1999. He was a 19 year old Formula 3 driver then, a few pimples on his face, fuzzy hair. He hadn’t won the British F3 championship and he didn’t win Macau either, but he seemed to have a lot of momentum and hype behind him.
I’d just been working on a book with Michael Schumacher and had spent a fair bit of time with him and Ross Brawn, who was then the technical director of Ferrari. It had been a fascinating process, learning the inner workings of that relationship. Clearly the key to success was being in the right car and then being able to maintain consistency at a high level and never giving anything away to the opposition and I told Jenson that. Ross created the right environment for Schumacher to thrive and Schumacher kept it on the limit the whole time. He didn’t question Ross’ demands, he just did it.
I was reminded of that in 2009 when Brawn created the right environment for Button to shut out the opposition with a perfectly timed pole lap, make an aggressive pass at the start to set himself up for victory, to make things happen.
Today he is pretty consistent; not as fast by his own admission, as Lewis Hamilton in qualifying, but able to always be there or thereabouts and on his day to win spectacularly, as he did in Montreal this year.
Because the truth is that for most of his Formula 1 career Button was not able to make things happen. In fact quite the reverse; he made mistakes, chose the wrong career move, changed management like he changed his shirt. And that was a source of great frustration to him and to the man who has always believed in him the most, his father John.
But he got onto the right track and it came good for him and it’s an object lesson in determination.
There has always been a debate among fans about how good Button actually is and I suspect that this will never be fully agreed.
Ross Brawn admitted in 2009 to being surprised at how good a driver he was, not having really seen many signs of it as an opponent.
But the most eloquent advocate of Button’s skill as a driver is Gil de Ferran, who was sporting director of the Honda F1 team in 2005/6 I would often chat with him on the way back from Grands Prix and he was evangelical about Button’s gifts. I think this was partly because Gil was schooled in American racing where the teams are more open with information than in F1. He could see what Jenson was doing and felt that it shouldn’t be a secret known only by the team,
“It became apparent to me very quickly that Jenson’s skill was at a very high level looking at his data traces,” recalled De Ferran, once a champion driver himself in America, “There was never any exaggeration in his throttle, brake or steering, everything was done the precise amount. He would never over do it and come back,
Pressed for examples, De Ferran remembered qualifying for the British Grand Prix 2005 in particular. Button qualified 3rd, but, as is sadly all too common in the sport, the brilliance of what he had achieved was appreciable only by the handful of people inside the team with access to the telemetry,
“I remember looking at his data after qualifying and thinking, ‘Jesus, Christ!’ He had basically judged every corner to absolute perfection. That’s something the public doesn’t see; the tiny adjustments he made to find a whole new limit was very impressive to me. It was perfect – there was not one correction too many. It was all done with surgical precision; the throttle, brake and steering were all just perfect
“I can’t tell you how hard it is to go that fast and be smooth. The public likes the guy with the tail out but in my opinion, being on the limit without those moves, demonstrates a higher degree of skill. “
It’s all subjective stories of course, as so much of the debate about drivers is. And as the comments section on this site and on other sites prove, fans will always talk up their favourites and talk down drivers they dislike.
Button is one of F1’s front runners and race winners at a time of very intense competition among drivers and teams, that’s all that really needs to be said.
He’s also a world champion and the spring in his step these days is because he knows that no-one can take that away from him.