Jenson Button was out on Sunday night at the Autosport Awards.
He renewed his contract with the Honda team in October and must now wait anxiously to see whether the team will be sold in time to take its place on the grid for the Australian Grand Prix on March 29th 2009, whether the new owner will want him in the car or whether another team offers him a ride.
It is another setback in a career, which has not fulfilled the immense promise he showed when he made his debut in 2000, aged 20, with the Williams team.
Button has been in Formula 1 for nine seasons and although not considered by paddock pundits to be a member of the elite group of drivers in the top echelon, he is right at the top of division two and the experts all says that has one of the purest driving techniques in the field. He drives with great smoothness, very rarely getting the car out of shape.
The same could not be said of the management of his career. Button has had three different managers, David Robertson, John Byfield and Richard Goddard during his nine years in F1 and has made some rather chaotic decisions, although things have been more stable since Goddard has been in charge.
The timing of this situation is bad in every respect, not least because Button’s form tailed off towards the end of last season and team mate Rubens Barrichello often outperformed him. This is the memory of him which is fresh in the mind at this critical phase of his career. It wasn’t really like Jenson, who the year before had performed well in a poor car, especially on days when there was a sniff of some points.
In his debut season of F1 he showed well against his more experienced team mate Ralf Schumacher, but Williams had already decided to hire Juan Pablo Montoya for 2001. Williams offered Button the opportunity to show his credentials and kept him on a retainer, even when he moved to the Benetton/Renault team in 2001. It was the first of a series of career moves, where the timing was less than perfect.
Renault was in a phase of rebuilding its technical department and Button was often fighting at the back of the field, he finished 17th in the 2001 championship. As the car started to come good, he was replaced for the 2003 season by the test driver, Fernando Alonso, who went on to win two world championships with the team in 2005 and 2006.
Button was unable for 2003 to attract the attention of the front running teams, but found a promising looking berth at the BAR team. In 2004 he had his best season with ten podium finishes and his first pole position, but fell out with the team boss David Richards and announced in August of that year that he had signed with Williams for 2005. A contract dispute followed, which resulted in Button staying at BAR. Instead Richards left the team.
In 2005 instead of building on the success of the previous season, the team went backwards and things took a bizarre turn when it was given a two race suspension for running an illegal fuel tank system. Button signed for Williams for 2006, but then changed his mind when Williams’ performances faltered and Honda bought out BAR. He was forced to buy himself out of his Williams contract.
It turned out to be a good, if expensive, decision as Button took his sole Grand Prix victory to date in the Hungarian Grand Prix of 2006.
It was to prove a high water mark. For 2007 Button had to contend with the double misfortunes of an uncompetitive car and the emergence of McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton as the leading British driver. This year’s Honda was a fundamentally flawed design and the decision was taken early in the season to focus the team’s considerable resources on optimising the 2009 car. This consigned Button and his team mate Rubens Barrichello to a season at the back of the grid.
Although most race fans understood the decision and took Honda’s poor performances this year for what they were, it made the decision by the board to withdraw from F1 much easier and now the casual viewer’s opinion is that “it’s no wonder they quit as they were so poor”. It proves something that F1 people, with their inward looking attitude, often forget; you spend all your time explaining your situation to the initiated, through the F1 media, but to the uninitiated, the casual viewer or reader, perceptions are different.
They see a Button who has gone off the boil and a Honda car which is a load of rubbish and that is the view at large at the moment.
I remember sitting with Jenson and his father John with their then manager David Robertson in the Italian restaurant at Macau F3 GP in 1999, where Jenson finished third. He wanted to know how F1 worked, who was who and how the game was played. Barely three months later I was interviewing him as the new Williams driver for the season opener show in Melbourne.
Some might argue that his focus has not always been on the racing and that he has an overdeveloped understanding of how to enjoy himself, but he’s still a key asset to F1 and a superb driver when the car is vaguely competitive.At 28, Button is still in his prime and he has been among the best paid for the last five years. It remains be seen whether there will be another chapter in the rollercoaster career of Jenson Button.
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Does Jenson have a future?
- Formula 1