Jenson Button: the driver debates

Jenson Button, Honda, Barcelona, 2008, 470150

The subject of this week’s driver debate is Jenson Button, whose career has had more ups and downs than a malfunctioning elevator.

How do you rate Jenson Button – and will he ever win another race?

Jenson Button was a Formula Three driver in 1999 but the following season was catapulted into a drive with one of Britain’s most historic teams: Williams. It came about after Williams cut their contract with Alessandro Zanardi a year short, and needed a driver for one year until Juan Pablo Montoya came along.

Button did a very respectable job in his first season, scoring points in his second race (becoming the youngest driver ever to do so until Sebastian Vettel last year) and finishing an impressive fourth in the rain at the Hockenheimring. He qualified third on his first visit to the mighy Spa-Francorchamps.

A disastrous season at the declining Benetton followed, although he recovered the following season as the team became Renault. There was no place for him at the team any more though, as Flavio Briatore dropped him for his own man Fernando Alonso (which, you have to say, worked out alright for them).

So Button ended up at BAR where he’s been ever since, the team becoming Honda in 2006. He chased Jacques Villeneuve into retirement in his first season and came of age in 2004 with a string of podium finishes, though never able to beat the rampant Ferraris to claim that elusive first win.

It didn’t happen in 2005 either – the team were nowhere in the first half of the season and thrown out of three races for running with illegal fuel tanks.

Finally in 2006 after 115 attempts Button scored an opportunistic but badly deserved win in the rain at Hungary from 14th on the grid. He was assisted by Alonso’s retirement that day, but Button had been catching him at the time and we were robbed of what might have been a thrilling battle between the pair.

The season ended on a high. But 2007 was a disaster the likes of which Button could not possibly have imagined. The unpredictable and dog-slow RA107 made a mockery of his talent, and he scraped together just four points by the season’s end – though still four more than team mate Rubens Barrichello.

Is he a great talent struggling to escape inadequate machinery? It’s easy to assume that the best drivers automatically find their way into the best cars, but that isn’t always true.

However, Button didn’t exert the kind of cast-iron dominance over team mates like of Jarno Trulli early in his career that would have made him a ‘must-sign’ driver for McLaren or Ferrari.

The embarrassment of the two ‘Button-gate’ years of 2004 and 2005 (when Williams and BAR squabbled over his contract) has now receded into memory. Whatever debt of service he owed the team for trying to dump them during their excellent 2004 season it he has now surely paid for with the purgatory he suffered last year.

With Ross Brawn on board it’s time for Honda to give Button the car he deserves so he can go racing at the front again.

What do you think of Jenson Button?

Jenson Button biography

Jenson Button, Jarno Trulli, Spa-Francorchamps, 2000, 470313

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55 comments on Jenson Button: the driver debates

  1. I have always thought alot of Jenson, I believe he has been in the wrong teams at the wrong times. I think if he was given a top drive he would be consistent and a challenge for a title, I would put him above Massa and Hamilton, and below Alonso and Raikkonen until he could prove me wrong!

  2. Daniel said on 29th April 2008, 22:47

    I second Uppili’s affirmation on Button’s attempts… he won his first race out of 114 starts, not 155…

    I know that because in a few months Rubens Barrichello will win Formula 1 "Insistency Trophy" Grand Slam: Most GP Starts (when he reaches 257), Most starts until the first win (123).

    About Button, I think he and Barrichello had a similar fate, with a huge difference: Jenson never had a Ferrari on his hands, but, had he been in Rubens’ position, I don’t think he would be a match for Schumacher either…

    He’s a good, solid driver, who made wrong choices, that seemed right at the time, and deserved a better luck…

    I think he could be a champion with a not-too-strong opposition, for example, like Damon’s title in 1996 (when Schumacher was rebuilding Ferrari and Villeneuve was a rookie). Not surprisingly, some posts above compare Jenson with Damon…

    And, seeing what you’re saying, I can see the British press reacts the same way the Brazilian press does: hailing many drivers as our "next champion". Like Keith said, they discern (nothing was said about Enrique Bernoldi or Tarso Marques, for example), but whenever someone shows some talent (like Cristiano da Matta, that came as a Champ Car Champion), they make huge prospects…

  3. the limit said on 29th April 2008, 22:50

    I always felt that Jenson Button was a little mistreated by Williams back in 2000. I know that we all know that Montoya had been selected for 2001, but I believe Button’s career was seriously damaged because of his treatment by Williams, when maybe a better decision could have been made.
    When you look at the career of Felipe Massa, which began at Sauber ofcourse, his first season was littered with mistakes and overeagerness. How easy it would have been for Peter Sauber to have cast Massa aside completely, back to the bargin basement, never to be seen again.
    That did not happen, and Massa was made a test driver for a year, then a got a race seat again, before his move to Ferrari.
    Button on the other hand has been used, first by Williams, then by the now Renault team, and an inbetweener, a back up guy. The only difference being, is that atleast Flavio Briatore
    replaced Button with an all time star, Alonso.
    The same could not be said of Williams. The pairing of Montoya with the equally flamable Ralf Schumacher was, as Patrick Head put it, ‘like water and oil’.
    My point being, is that Williams may well have been better off keeping Button as a test driver, giving him the chance to learn as much about the car as possible, rather than cast him off.
    If he wasn’t up to ‘their’ standards in 2000, why want him back four years later? What had changed in that time?
    You only have to look at Felipe Massa now, as a race driver, and compare him to how he was six years ago. He has had the great fortune to learn from a seven times world champion, and to mature. Just imagine how Button may have performed had he been in the same team as Juan Pablo Montoya for instance, even as his team mate in the first place.
    He is a very gifted driver, but he is now in a hole, not too different from David Coulthard, forever an alsoran. It is such a shame and a terrible waste, because he is better than that, but will never be able to prove it where he is.

  4. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 29th April 2008, 23:22

    Uppili, Daniel, that’s a typo I’ve made actually, it was 115 attempts, including the 2003 Monaco and 2005 US Grands Prix, which he didn’t start. Fixed it now, thanks for spotting it.

  5. The F1 annals are littered with drivers who could have, should have, would have – if only they’d had the chance.

    Add JB to that list.

  6. Michael Counsell said on 30th April 2008, 13:21

    In the mid 2000s very few drivers have scored more points than Jenson.

    2004: 3rd overall with 85 points and 26 points ahead of next non Ferrari (Alonso) and racked up 10 podiums

    2005: 9th overall with 37 points but the car was disqualified from the first part of the season and was unreliable.  After the USGP was only outscored by the McLarens and Renaults.  Meanwhile Sato scored only 1 point the entire season

    2006:  6th overall with 56 points, nearly twice Barrichello’s score.  Won a race and scored the most points in the last 6 races of the season

    All of this is highly selective admittedly but these were all things achieved that suggest that Jenson is a top driver and has driven for a top team and at certain times the combined package has actually been the best.  It can probably be applied to everyone and every dog has their day…

  7. Chalky said on 30th April 2008, 14:09

    OK, I’ve done a bit of digging on results as I do not think that Jenson has driven for a "Top Team". My definition of a "Top Team" is one that has provided both drivers with a win in a season. Thus, proving that the car is race winning and capable and challenging for the championship. I know it’s all measured on past results but I think it indicates who had the chance and who just is making up the numbers. So here goes from 2000 when Jenson started:
    Year – Winner (Team mate) \ Other teams with wins for both drivers
    2000 – Schumacher (Barrichello) Ferrari \ McLaren
    2001 – Schumacher (Barrichello) Ferrari (no win for Barrichello but pre 2002 Hungarian GP fiasco so team orders prevalent?) \ Williams \ McLaren
    2002 – Schumacher (Barrichello) Ferrari \ (1 win for Williams & 1 for McLaren) Ferrari dominant!
    2003 – Schumacher (Barrichello) Ferrari \ Williams \ McLaren
    2004 – Schumacher (Barrichello) Ferrari \ (1 for Toyota, McLaren, Williams) Ferrari dominant!
    2005 – Alonso (Fisichella) Renault \ McLaren (1 for Ferrari infamous US GP)
    2006 – Alonso (Fisichella) Renault \ Ferrari (1 for Honda)
    2007 – Raikkonen (Massa) Ferrari \ McLaren

    So nowhere in Jensons time in F1 has he been in a team that has provided him with a chance at the title. Hopefully that proves he’s done the best in what he’s got so far.

  8. Journeyer said on 30th April 2008, 16:45

    Point taken, Chalky, but surely, Button should’ve managed to win in 2004 when lesser cars managed to take wins, right?  How can BAR not be a top team when they were 2nd in the WCC?  I just think that while Button has done much with what he has got, he could’ve done more to get more (and therefore be in a better position to win more).  And that’s why the top teams haven’t been looking seriously at him: he lacks that something extra.

  9. Michael Counsell said on 30th April 2008, 17:04

    I don’t think its possible to prove that he did the best possible because there’s no such thing.  Maybe if Michael Schumacher had been driving the 2004 BAR and Button the Ferrari, Schumacher may still have won the title or at least some races to allow it to be considered a top team.

    Either way Button has yet to drive a car good enough for him, or his team mate to win a world championship yet.  I don’t think building such a car is impossible particularly with Ross Brawn behind it.

  10. Michael Counsell said on 30th April 2008, 17:19

    If he doesn’t have "that something extra" how can the 2003 USGP or the 2006 Hungarian GPs be explained.  As it is I don’t think criticising someone of lacking "that something extra" is really a valid point.

    Arguably Button had the best race car at the Monaco GP but couldn’t pass Trulli but remember it was Monaco. 

  11. Journeyer said on 30th April 2008, 17:32

    Both of them had great strategy partnered with it.  In particular, the 2003 US GP had more than a bit of luck – the rain fell right before their first pitstop – so they made 1 less stop.

    Button had other chances to win in 2004 – like San Marino, Germany (to some extent), and especially Italy – yet it didn’t quite happen.  Now, if Michael Schumacher was driving that BAR (especially in the 2 Italian races), would he have just let those race leads slip away from him so easily?  I wouldn’t think so.

    "That something extra" is an intangible.  How else would you describe it?  Jenson looks very good, yet… you just feel something seems missing with him… that something that you feel in drivers like Alonso, Raikkonen, and even Hamilton.  You can’t quite describe it, you just feel it.

  12. Michael Counsell said on 30th April 2008, 21:33

    I wouldn’t describe it as anything, because its meaningless but then again no one here is really describing Jenson Button’s ability because it is beyond our capability to truly compare drivers because we know so little about what they do.  All anyone really does is pick favourites and try to argue a case for them.

  13. Michael K said on 1st May 2008, 10:10

    Ok, Michael Counsell, there are two choices here:

    a. you work for Jenson’s PR team

    or.

    b. you are a real Jenson fanatic, bordering on the deluded

    All the stats you wrote are nothing but clutching at straws, Jenson has won 1 race in his career and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was it. He will never drive for a top team unless Honda somehow manage to get their act together, which I doubt, even with Ross Brawn at the helm as the Japanese will manage to cock that up with their way of working.

  14. Chalky said on 1st May 2008, 10:50

    "but surely, Button should’ve managed to win in 2004 when lesser cars managed to take wins, right?"
    Well you could argue that. However Monaco he finished 2nd to Trulli. Trulli took pole, Button 2nd on the grid. Typical Monaco result.
    Belgium – Although a bad qualifying he got up to 5th and then suffered a puncture that blew the tire crashing him into a Minardi.
    Brazil – Engine failure after 3 laps.
    Schumacher only needed 2 points more than Barrichello by the time the Belgium GP had come around. Maybe a reason not to push too hard in that race?
    Some years there is only 1 team that is a "Top Team" in F1. Not fun for the fans, but a great achievement by the team.
    I’m always hopeful that we can finally have 3 teams with both drivers winning. That means BMW have to step up a bit more in performance. I wonder how far back I have to look in the results to see a season like that?
    I think Jensons only hope for another win is with Honda, I can’t see Ferrari \ McLaren hiring him. Doubt we’ll see that next win, but the with the new rules for 2009 you never can tell.

  15. Michael Counsell said on 1st May 2008, 13:30

    You don’t need to be a fan or work for his PR team to select some statistics and comment on them.  If someone was to put forward some kind of argument criticising his driving, or ability in testing  it would be fair enough, but they haven’t.  The main arguments being that he is overrated and good,  but not quite good enough.  Perhaps some of the key questions are.

    Is he fast enough qualifying and in races?
    Does he make too many mistakes?
    Can he overtake well enough?
    Can he defend his position?
    Can he cope with changing conditions?
    Can he perform under pressure?
    Can he set up and develop a car?

    If he can tick all the boxes, he can keep his team happy and achieve desirable results whether he’s in a top team or not.

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