Whether he will return in 2018 remains to be seen. But we may be watching the final act in the career of a world champion. That makes this a fitting occasion to reflect on the best we’ve seen from Button.
The high and low points of his career have contrasted more sharply than others: The dazzling debut for Williams followed by the grim sophomore season at Benetton; a breakthrough victory in 2006 followed by the crushing defeat of the next two seasons; and of course the near-ending of Button career when Honda withdrew, only for him to return the next year with Brawn and become champion.
The last time we began a season without Button, Damon Hill was on the grid, the Millennium Bug was giving people the jitters worldwide, Hillary Clinton’s husband was the US president and Max Verstappen still wore a nappy.
Despite the length of his time in F1, the majority of Button’s major successes, including his world title and all but one of his race wins, came in a brief purple patch between 2009 and 2012.
But it would be wrong to overlook some of his less eye-catching yet equally superb drives in weaker cars. Here are ten of Button’s finest days in F1.
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2000 German GP – 4th
Making his debut for Williams aged just 20 in the 2000 season, Button impressed from the start. He compared favourably to team mate Ralf Schumacher and was only denied a points-scoring debut by a late retirement in Melbourne. He then became the youngest ever points scorer (at the time) with sixth next time out at Interlagos.
Five more points finishes followed, as well as a superb third place on the grid at Spa, and his best result of the season came at the old flat out Hockenheim, where he finished fourth.
In a race best remembered for the protesting track invader and his future team mate Rubens Barrichello’s first victory, Button was outstanding. He worked his way up the field from a lowly 16th on the grid to fourth, resisted the temptation to put on wet weather tyres when rain fell, and almost pipped David Coulthard to the final podium place.
2002 Malaysian GP – 4th
Unfortunately, podium near-misses came to characterise Button’s early years in F1. Perhaps the most painful near miss came in the Malaysian Grand Prix two years later.
Having been turfed out of Williams to make way for Juan Pablo Montoya in 2001, Button sought refuge at Benetton. Unfortunately, he had picked the worst possible time, and the former constructors champions provided the Briton with an abject car. He took just one points finish, again at Hockenheim.
Fortunately, when Benetton became Renault in the off-season their fortunes were revitalised. He embarked on a much improved campaign, and was on course for a comfortable 3rd place at round two in Sepang when his suspension failed in the closing laps, gifting his position to Michael Schumacher The wait went on.
2004 German GP – 2nd
A move to BAR in 2003 initially seemed like a sideways step, and a middling first season in the partnership did little to disprove this. The following year, however, Button finally found he had a car to make a breakthrough.
The British driver claimed his first podium finish at the scene of his heartbreak two years earlier. The floodgates had opened: Button took six podiums in seven races and grabbed pole position at Imola. Button finished on the podium ten times that season – a better strike rate even than his championship-winning season five years later – and secured third in the championship.
The stand-out performance came, once again, at Hockenheim. On the by now truncated circuit, Button qualified third, was demoted to 13th on the grid after an engine penalty, and fought his way back up to second by the finish. What made the drive even more impressive was that for much of the race he was driving with one hand down straights to avoid being strangled after his helmet had come loose!
2006 Hungarian GP – 1st
By 2006, Button’s career was in need of a kickstart. A damaging, year-long contractual dispute with Williams coincided with a mediocre 2005, in which BAR had been penalised for cheating at Imola and banned for two races. Button languished in the midfield while Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen battled for victories.
The 2006 campaign began with much of the same, albeit with his team now rebranded as Honda. It began to seem that Button’s career might already have peaked. An engine penalty which left him 14th on the grid for the Hungarian Grand Prix did not suggest an upturn in fortune was imminent.
But, thanks to a combination of superb driving, changing weather and his rivals’ mistakes and misfortunes, Button was unexpectedly thrust into the winner’s circle at the Hungaroring. He wasted little time racing through the pack at the start, made no mistakes on the damp track and reached the head of the field. Button eventually opened up a 30 second gap and eased to a stunning victory.
2007 Chinese GP – 5th
With the victory monkey finally dislodged from his back and Honda investing heavily in the team, Button’s time had surely come. He had scored more points than any other driver in the final six races of 2006, and his sights were set on a championship challenge in 2007.
But it proved to be yet another false dawn. The following two seasons at the wheel of Honda’s ‘Earth Car’ creations proved to be a complete and utter write-off.
Bright spots were few and far between, with only four points finishes over the two seasons. But one of them, at a damp Shanghai in 2007, saw Button reach Q3 and subsequently race to fifth, ten places clear of his team mate Rubens Barrichello. It proved he had lost none of his talent for racing in changeable conditions.
2009 Bahrain GP – 1st
For a few days at the end of 2008 it seemed fortune had dealt Button’s career a final blow. Honda’s abrupt decision to withdraw from F1 following the economic downturn threatened to leave him without a drive.
Instead, a phoenix named Brawn GP arose from the Honda ashes, and he won six of the next seven races en route to the world title. Funny how quickly fortunes change in F1.
His win in Bahrain in round four was particularly masterful. Maintaining his fourth place grid slot at the start, Button was required to overtake the KERS-equipped McLaren of Lewis Hamilton in order to keep pace with the lightly-fuelled Toyotas in front. He did just that, jumped them in the pit window, and strolled to victory – a huge 38 seconds clear of his team mate.
2009 Monaco GP – 1st
Perhaps the most memorable of Button’s quickfire early 2009 victories came at Monaco. He snatched pole at the death of qualifying, stormed into an early lead and maintained a huge buffer from his team mate throughout.
Only after taking the chequered flag did Button put a foot wrong. Unaccustomed to success on the streets of Monte Carlo, he parked his car in parc ferme rather than on the start finish straight as is traditional, and had to run back down the pit lane and track to reach the podium ceremony.
2010 Australian GP – 1st
Button surprised many in the paddock by turning his back on Brawn to join McLaren at the end of their title-winning season. Pundits questioned the wisdom of going up against Hamilton in the team that had been built around him over the previous three seasons.
It didn’t take long for him to confound the critics. Two races into his McLaren career Button topped the podium once again, winning the Australian Grand Prix on a drying track after a brave early decision to switch to slick tyres. He followed this up with another victory two races later in China, and remained in contention for the title for most of the season.
2011 Canadian GP – 1st
Arguably Button’s 2011 campaign was every bit as strong as his title-winning year. While his McLaren was not usually a match for the pace setting Red Bull, he still took three wins and 12 podiums, thoroughly outshining Hamilton and securing runners up spot in the driver’s standings.
Button’s win on a sodden Montreal afternoon made his debut win at the Hungaroring look like child’s play. Seldom has a driver been forced to battle through more adversity to achieve victory than he did that day.
First a collision with Hamilton sent Button into the pits for a new front wing. He then earned a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the Safety Car. Once the race resumed after a mid race deluge, Button picked up a puncture in a collision with Alonso, leaving him in last place with 30 laps to go.
Aided by two additional Safety Cars which bunched up the field, Button mounted a remarkable comeback, racing through the pack to seize first place from Sebastian Vettel halfway around the final lap.
2012 Belgian GP – 1st
Button’s 2012 season was frustratingly inconsistent. Bookending the campaign with wins in Australia and Brazil, he only managed four podiums in the 18 races between them, despite driving arguably the quickest car in the field.
On his day, though, Button was as quick as ever. His only other victory that season came at Spa, where he utterly dominated the weekend. Pole position – eight-tenths clear of Hamilton – was easily converted into race victory. Not even his team mate’s infamous and ill-advised tweeting of his telemetry data could detract from that.
Button’s subsequent seasons at McLaren have proved to be short on highlights, with no hint of additional victories and just one podium finish. But with the Honda engine clearly improving, perhaps we’ll get a final glimpse of Button at his best before he hangs up his distinctive ‘JB’ helmet come November.
Over to you
What do you think were the ten best performances of Button’s F1 career? Have your say in the comments.