Button's tryst with chequered flag

Motor sport
Last Updated 24 October 2009, 16:14 IST


So there it is, the name of Jenson Button finally inscribed on the grand prix roll of honour at the end of a season in which a campaign that began with the rush of six wins in seven races appeared to have slowed to a crawl as it approached the chequered flag. There are many ways to win the world championship, and the 10th British driver to capture the title added to the suspense by taking the scenic route.

Button may be still on the right side of 30, but he has had to wait longer to secure his title than all but one of his compatriots. The task that took Lewis Hamilton two seasons, Jim Clark and James Hunt four, Jackie Stewart, John Surtees and the two Hills, Graham and Damon, five and Mike Hawthorn seven to complete has occupied Button for an entire decade, longer than anyone except Nigel Mansell, the sweating, straining Sisyphus of Formula One, who rolled his boulder up the hill for 13  years before managing to get it to stay put on the summit.

This coming January it will be 10 years since tears rolled down Button's boyish cheeks as he fell into the arms of his equally emotional father after being told by Sir Frank Williams that he was about to become Britain's youngest-ever grand prix driver. Less than a week earlier the lad from Frome had celebrated the end of his teenage years, and the future appeared to be one of unbroken promise.

But it takes all sorts of experiences to make a world champion, and Button's path to the title has been strewn with obstacles. In retrospect his trials could be seen as a necessary counterbalance to the impression he can sometimes give of floating through life on a cloud of privilege and good fortune, with a yacht in the Monaco harbour, a yellow Ferrari and a string of girlfriends drawn from the ranks of pop singers, aristocrats and underwear models.

Too often in the past he had found himself trapped in the wrong environment, creating a superficial and misleading impression that caused him to be written off by two of the sport's most powerful men. The now-disgraced Flavio Briatore sacked him from the Renault team in 2002 in order to promote his own protégé, Fernando Alonso, shortly before Bernie Ecclestone advised David Richards, the BAR-Honda boss, against reviving

the Briton's career.

Richards's decision to ignore Ecclestone's opinion set Button on the path that would lead, seven years later, to his coronation as the 31st world champion in formula one's 60-year history. Even then, however, it was hardly plain sailing as Button navigated his way unsteadily through a series of setbacks. A mini-scandal when his team was suspended for making illegal use of a hidden device in the car's petrol tank was followed by the messy aftermath of Richards's mysterious sacking by Honda, an expensively aborted attempt to return to the Williams fold and a succession of poor cars.

Among the most valuable weapons in a world champion's armoury is the instinct for joining the right team at the right time, and until this year it seemed to be the attribute Button most crucially lacked. Williams let him go at the end of his first season, he was ejected from Renault just as the team was becoming competitive enough to win titles, and even when a period of improving fortunes with Honda climaxed in 2006 with his first grand prix victory, that success proved to be a mirage as the team went into a sudden and disastrous decline.

Most of all, when Honda suddenly pulled the plug before the beginning of the present season, he refused to panic. Instead of fleeing into the arms of a rival team, he saw the sense in staying put, voluntarily cutting his £12m annual salary by about two-thirds and showing his confidence in Ross Brawn, his new team principal. That act of faith played a key part in restoring the morale of team personnel whose livelihoods had been threatened. On the track he has shown that while some champions are bullies and others are stylists, his smooth precision puts him firmly in the latter category. It is no accident that he grew up admiring the calmness and consistency of Alain Prost while the young Lewis Hamilton adored the panache and charisma of Ayrton Senna.

In answer to those who claim that his run of six wins in this season's first seven races, was the achievement of the car rather than its driver, he can point to Mansell's eight of the first 10 with Williams in 1992 or Michael Schumacher's five of the first six with Ferrari in 2002. These things happen in Formula One, and the champion is the one with the skill and intelligence to take advantage of his circumstances, as Jenson Button has done at last.

(Published 24 October 2009, 16:14 IST)

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