Jenson: World Champion at last
As Jenson Button pulled back the curtains on the morning of 6 August 2006 and saw the rain – it gave him hope. He hadn’t won a race since British F3 and now, six years into his Formula 1 career, he needed to prove the doubters wrong. The Hungaroring is a notoriously difficult circuit to overtake on (even in the wet) and it was going to require an incredible amount of skill to get a result from a lowly 14th on the grid.
As the race got underway, Jenson again demonstrated that remarkable feel and assured speed in the wet that he showed all those years ago when he first raced a kart, aged 8, in the pouring rain.
The wait was finally over. At his 113th attempt, Jenson Button finally stood on the top step of a Formula 1 podium. The 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix marked his maiden F1 victory and the first outright win for Honda as a constructor since 1967.
The Brit had proved that with the right equipment he was unstoppable and having scored his first GP win, he reiterated his ultimate ambition. All he needed was a car worthy of his undoubted talents.
"I’ll be devastated if I don’t win the championship because it’s what I’ve always wanted to achieve," said Jenson. "I work so hard – harder than people realise. Especially on my fitness, if I don’t win the championship in the future I won’t be able to live with myself."
Honda’s first win should have been the springboard to future success, but subsequent cars proved uncompetitive. In 2007 and 2008, the results were lamentable. And when it seemingly couldn’t get any worse, Honda pulled the plug on their F1 operation. They quit Formula 1 at the end of 2008 and Jenson was left without a drive…
A winter of uncertainty followed until a management buyout took place at Brackley when team principal Ross Brawn took ownership. With a total of 423 grand prix starts between them, Jenson Button was retained alongside Rubens Barrichello (their fourth season together) and Brawn GP commenced the 2009 season testing at Barcelona.
On the opening day of the first test Jenson set the fastest lap time, nearly a second quicker than the next runner. It was a portent of things to come.
"I have the hunger to achieve and I'm not the only person that feels like that, it's all of us," he said about the fledgling outfit. "Especially having produced a car that I think is competitive and is different to the last two cars we've produced. So we all feel like kids again and you can see that from the smiles in the team."
The blistering pace continued in pre-season testing and it was evident that before quitting F1, Honda had found a loophole in the new technical regulations. The BGP 001’s double diffuser was the key to its impressive pace and despite rival teams’ protestations, the FIA deemed it legal.
The fairytale continued when Brawn GP went to Melbourne, the opening race of the 2009 season, and finished a dominant 1-2 – Jenson ahead of Rubens. From a winter without a team, to winners on their debut was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of the sport. "You don't often find Ross [Brawn] lost for words but I think even the he was struggling a bit…" said Jenson after his Australian GP win.
After round two in Malaysia, JB was trying to downplay expectations. Over the winter the team had to layoff over 200 staff, the BGP 001 didn’t have the advantage of KERS and the Sepang race was red-flagged, leading to just half points. Despite that, after the first two races of 2009, Jenson had scored more points than in the whole of the previous two seasons…
Victories continued in Bahrain, Spain and the jewel in the crown: the Monaco Grand Prix. Having the car that was the class of the F1 field changed Jenson Button’s mindset to Formula 1.
"I've become a bit boring this year,” he said during the Monaco weekend, “because in between races I'm studying all the data, looking at everything, thinking about how to improve, asking the engineers stuff, whereas before I would work hard at the track but just chill in between…"
By June, McLaren and Ferrari conceded the title was beyond their reach as Button cruised to his sixth win in seven races. But from the mid-season onwards, the financially perilous Brawn GP outfit couldn’t afford to maintain their development rate and when Sebastian Vettel dominated the British Grand Prix in his Red Bull, he began to close the points gap to Jenson.
The drivers’ world championship was in Jenson’s sights, but there was now a nervous run-in as the season reached its climax. After the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, he held an 18.5 point advantage over his rivals and was concerned it might not be enough. Indeed, from June onwards he failed to win another grand prix that year…
At the penultimate race of the season in Brazil, his team-mate Rubens Barrichello (who was also in contention for the title) put his car on pole position at his home race, while Jenson could only manage 14th.
But race day for Jenson was a masterclass in overtaking. In a drive reminiscent of that famous first victory in Hungary, Jenson Button carved his way through the field in one of the drives of his life. He eventually took the four points – and fifth place – he needed to be world champion. A lifetime’s ambition finally achieved – and a remarkable story for the Brawn GP team.
"It's really amazing," he said after his Interlagos drive. "It's 21 years since I first raced a kart. At that age I never expected to be world champion in F1, because you think racing drivers in F1 are different from you. But I did it today.
"I feel ecstatic, all the bad memories and the good memories go through your mind, not just from this year but from previous years in the sport. Especially this year, there was such a great start to the season, then the last races were pretty stressful for me.
"Plus last winter it was very difficult. I didn't know if I would be racing in F1 this year – and that is the truth. I had a few options but nothing that would have furthered my career, so I was thinking about taking a year out. But if you do that you get forgotten so I am happy we were able to turn it around and get the car on the grid in Australia. And this is the end of the fairy tale."
The year at Brawn was an incredible story, not only for Jenson Button but for the whole team. But the finances were not in place for the Brawn GP to continue – the team was sold to Mercedes.
Jenson Button had achieved his ultimate goal and was now after a new challenge. The world champion was about to forge all-British dream team with one of the most prestigious organisations on the grid… Welcome to Woking, Jenson.