This weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix will see Jenson Button’s 300th race in F1, a feat previously matched by only two other drivers – Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. With his landmark race on the horizon, and the prospect of a year away from racing in 2017, Jennie Gow reflects on the career of arguably the most accomplished driver on the grid.
With a career that’s spanned 17 years in F1, and that’s been almost 30 years in the making across all forms of motorsport, there are few drivers as experienced as Jenson Button.
And though the boy from Frome famously failed his first ever driving test, having steered too close to a parked car, when it comes to skill on the track, there has never been any doubt in Button’s ability.
From the moment his father bought him his first go-kart in 1988, to his first win in the British Super Prix just a year later – aged nine – Button was destined for big things in the sport. Yet few could predict he would go on to become such an icon, such was – and still is – the level of competition that stood before him.
Ten years on, a teenage Button had earned himself a McLaren test prize at Silverstone. He would subsequently go on to test for his hero Alain Prost, whose Prost Grand Prix team was at that point being spearheaded by drivers Jarno Trulli and Olivier Panis.
But it was Frank Williams who would eventually give him his first real shot in F1.
Following the departure of Alex Zanardi in 1999, Sir Frank arranged a ‘shoot-out’ test between Button and Brazilian Formula 3000 racer Bruno Junqueira. Button won, securing his seat with BMW Williams for the 2000 season to become Britain’s youngest ever Formula One driver.
He made his debut in Australia and, although he crashed during practice and qualified second-last on the grid, he performed strongly in the race and was all set to score a point before his engine failed with 11 laps to go. It was to be a promising first season, with six points finishes eventually earning him a move to Benetton, where he spent two seasons.
A move to BAR Honda followed and, in 2004, Button got his first taste of success. Ten times, he appeared on the podium that season.
By 2005, Button had raced his 100th Grand Prix, with the century race coming at Brazil’s Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, in Sao Paulo.
With high hopes for a first ever victory, it wasn’t to be his day. Button finished fourth in a race largely overshadowed by now team-mate Fernando Alonso, as the Championship came down to the wire. Alonso upstaged the Briton – securing a podium in a race which was enough to break Finnish hearts, taking the WDC win from the only other man capable of lifting the trophy that year, Kimi Raikkonen.
Still waiting for a victory, it was hardly the way Button had dreamt of celebrating his 100th race. But better days were just around the corner. And, only 13 races later, he picked up his first of 15 race wins, at the Hungaroring.
It was to be a milestone victory, both for Button and also for his team – the first victory for a British driver in what had been three years, and the first win for a Honda chassis since John Surtees’ victory at the 1967 Italian Grand Prix, in Monza.
Hungary would prove to be a special track for Button.
Five years later, in 2011 – on the occasion of his 200th race – I had the privilege of celebrating what would be a memorable win for Button with his McLaren team.
We were invited to the McLaren Brand Centre, a building which towered over the rest of the paddock like some sort of futuristic space centre. There were bowls of cookies dotted around the immaculate motorhome – all iced to perfection to mark the occasion. Some were adorned with the number ‘200’, others the Union Flag and some were simply decorated with Button’s initials – ‘JB’. Button’s father, John, was there, along with a number of other famous faces, including Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
As the weekend took shape, things were looking good for Button. He had qualified in 3rd behind Sebastian Vettel and his then teammate, Lewis Hamilton. Knowing Hungary was a track at which he had previously won gave the team confidence. And with his masterful performance at Canada earlier in the season still fresh in the memory for team and driver alike, the stage was well and truly set.
Sure enough, when race day came, the weather played its part. One moment it was raining. Next, the track was drying. The circumstances played perfectly into the hands of the double centurion. Button, having won his first race in similar conditions for Honda 5 years previously, was seen by now as a ‘Rain Master’. And he was about to once again prove himself worthy of that title.
At the start of the race, Button described the track as “not very wet, but slippery”. As others skidded and spun around the track, Button held his nerve and made the right calls at the right time. Whereas the likes of Hamilton pitted to come in for Intermediate tyres, and later came in again to switch back, Button braved the conditions, and went on to win his 200th race by over 30 seconds.
It was to be a defining moment in his career. And for us in the paddock, it was a moment I will never forget.
It is because of moments like this that Button has earned himself a reputation as a driver with the capability to thrive in mixed conditions, epitomised by his title-winning season with Brawn in 2009, and that famous race in Canada.
Fast forward to 2016 – 100 races later – and Jenson Button has a tougher challenge ahead of him. He has not won a race for four years – his last was at the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, where he beat Massa and Alonso to the top step.
Since then, there has been just one podium – his 50th career podium. And even then, he was robbed of the chance to celebrate with his adoring fans, having only been awarded the position post-race, after Daniel Ricciardo was excluded for illegal fuel flow.
Next weekend in Malaysia, Button celebrates his 300th Grand Prix start. No doubt, he will be hoping for another tropical downpour to make the most of his McLaren-Honda.
We’ve seen wet races at the Sepang circuit in the past, and it’s a track at which he has had previous success, including victory in his Championship-winning year. How he must dream of one last victory before he steps away from racing next year.
Having been forced to retire from 3 of the last 5 races, it’s high time Button had a little luck. And Honda have a little treat for the team, too – an engine upgrade. We’ve seen the car improve throughout the season, to a point where it can now regularly finish in the points. If, that is, the car can finish.
But another win like that of his 200th race will be a hard task, even for a seasoned pro like Jenson Button. Don’t the racing God’s know it’s his 300th race?!
It’s quite some landmark, too. Few have made it to such a significant milestone – only Rubens Barrichello (322) and Michael Schumacher (306) have taken part in more Grand Prix weekends. When Schumacher celebrated his 300th race at Spa in 2012, the whole of the paddock came out to commemorate the event. On that day, Schumacher could only finish 7th. The man who won the race that day, coincidentally, was one Jenson Button.