Jenson: Honda's hero
In the 1990s David Richards was the success behind British stars Colin McRae and Richard Burns in the World Rally Championship. Sharp-suited and smooth-talking ‘DR’ knew what it took to win a world title.
The tobacco firm BAT had bankrolled his Prodrive world rally organisation and were now funding his Formula 1 plans. Aware of Jenson Button’s obvious talents, Richards targeted the young British racer as a key part of his word title aspirations. With a deepening technical alliance between BAR and the Japanese manufacturer Honda, Jenson Button didn’t hesitate in signing up. Mid-way through 2002, a deal was done between the pair.
“I want to win and I want to be world champion, so I was looking for somewhere to achieve that,” said Jenson at the time. “There are plus and minus points to every team but I thought that British American Racing-Honda with David [Richards] in charge, was the way to go.”
In the winter of 2002, Jenson made a goodwill visit to Japan to forge a love affair with the country that has continued to this day. He went on a reconnaissance visit of Honda’s R&D headquarters at Tochigi and made new friends on the trip.
“Jenson is already part of the family,” said Ken Hashimoto, Honda’s F1 technical director during the visit. Jenson’s respect for Honda no doubt increased when a road-going NSX Type-R was especially despatched to his Monaco home after his return from Japan…
With a new training regime, a new F1 team, new management and new girlfriend (BBC TV’s Fame Academy star Louise Griffiths), Jenson Button felt 2003 was going to be his best year yet in F1.
Then in a blink of an eye he suffered the worst accident of his career while practicing for that year’s Monaco Grand Prix. Jenson lost control of his BAR through the tunnel at over 150mph and speared into the barriers with a sickening thud. The deceleration on impact measured 32g and, knocked unconscious, he was rushed to hospital.
“Maybe I was carrying a bit too much speed out of the tunnel, but I lost control because it was the first time we had run the car so stiff at the rear and with a soft front end,” said Jenson afterwards. “It just snapped out of control, there was nothing I could do and I hit the wall. When I woke up they were cutting my suit and I had four needles in my arm. It was pretty scary.”
A couple of weeks after the accident, Jenson wrote a letter to BAR’s technical directors Geoff Willis and Gary Savage, thanking them for making such a robust chassis. It had saved his life.
Despite that setback the 2003 season ended on a high note, Jenson Button had led for 15 laps at Indianapolis and finished fourth at Suzuka. Better still he’d out-driven his team-mate – the 1997 world champion. Jacques Villeneuve was then dropped and replaced by Takuma Sato for 2004. A clear indication that this was now Jenson’s team.
“Maybe I was carrying a bit too much speed out of the tunnel, but I lost control because it was the first time we had run the car so stiff at the rear and with a soft front end,”
The momentum continued into the new season and a flurry of F1 firsts came Jenson Button’s way. First pole at Imola. First podium at Malaysia.
“Crossing the finish line was amazing,” said Jenson of his first podium. “There was a lot of emotion, and feelings that you can’t fully explain rush in as you realise that you’ve achieved something with the team that so many people have been working so hard for.”
Then Jenson went and did it again… and again. Podiums two and three, at Bahrain, then Imola, were less emotional but more significant, proving to the sceptics that hard-won confidence of Button-BAR was no fluke.
At Hockenheim, after being relegated to 13th on the grid for an engine change he jostled fiercely with Fernando Alonso to bag an amazing runners-up spot behind Michael Schumacher. By Suzuka he’d taken his tenth podium and finished third overall in the 2004 drivers’ world championship.
But a glorious season turned sour over the following few months. Williams announced Button’s return to the team for 2005 and the ensuing row (dubbed ‘Buttongate’ by the Fleet Street press) only ended when F1’s Contract Recognition Board favoured BAR and so he remained at the Brackley-based team.
After another podium at the 2005 San Marino GP, the FIA discovered an irregular fuel tank in post-race scrutineering and BAR were subsequently banned for two races. On his return, the car showed a distinct lack of pace. JB’s championship aspirations were a right-off for another season.
There was optimism at the commencement of 2006. Over the winter Jenson completed 6,000 miles of testing and Honda racked up 17,000 miles in total – more than any other team. Jenson had a new team-mate in Rubens Barrichello, a new manager in Richard Goddard, and a new passion for training, working ever harder with his trainer of the past five years Phil Young.
“I’ve spent a lot of time at the Olympic training camp in Lanzarote and I’ve been doing everything I can to push myself as hard as possible,” said Jenson on the eve of the 2006 season. “That includes triathlons, biathlons, and other events as well, which is good preparation because it’s competitive. I feel good within myself and mentally very strong.”
The one problem was that six years into his Formula 1 career, Jenson Button had yet to win a race. He was suffering the longest win drought of his life and the frustration was starting to show.
“I’m so disappointed to have spent so long not winning races,” he said during 2006. “Personally I can do better than the Fernando Alonsos and Kimi Räikkönens of this world. If I had a car equal to those of the best drivers on the grid, I’ll win, because I have the confidence to achieve it.”
With the 2006 spec Honda again off the pace his dream of winning a grand prix seemed more distant than ever – he was in need of divine intervention.
As he pulled back the curtains of his Budapest hotel room on the morning of Sunday 6 August, 2006. Jenson Button looked up at the murky sky and the falling rain. Maybe, just maybe, this was the good fortune he had been praying for…