Despite leading the world championship, Jenson Button finds himself in a tricky situation going into next weekend’s penultimate round in Brazil. If he fails to take the title, Button will be hammered by those who expect him to dominate every race despite this being one of the most competitive and unpredictable seasons of all time. And if he scores enough points to end the agony, others will say it was thanks to the car rather than its driver.
Button can take heart from an unexpected but worthy vote of confidence delivered last week by Sir Frank Williams. The boss of the eponymous team, and one of the most ruthless employers of drivers in Formula One, said he would bite off Button’s hand if he offered his services. Knowing Williams, this could be a means of winding up Button’s team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, as the Brazilian thinks about making the switch from Brawn to Williams for 2010. But even if this is a typically shrewd negotiating ploy, Sir Frank does not distribute such praise lightly. Williams is in the perfect position to judge Button’s performance over the 15 races so far and his assessment will have taken into account the consistency that has allowed his former driver to lead the championship since his surprise but perfectly executed victory at the opening round in Melbourne on 29 March.
Button’s recent struggle to match six wins in the first seven races has made the Englishman a soft target for those who say he is not worthy of winning the title. Williams and others with more a detailed knowledge and understanding would like to know precisely who is better qualified to wear the crown.
Button’s mistakes have been few and far between and usually confined to small errors of judgment during qualifying that have cost him dearly in terms of track position on race day. Barrichello, his closest rival, may have out-qualified Button in the past five races but, overall, Barrichello has fallen short at critical moments. He simply did not drive fast enough during the crucial middle stint of a race he should have won in Spain. A poor start in Melbourne led to a first-corner tangle, while slow getaways and over-aggressive driving elsewhere proved just as costly.
Sebastian Vettel, back in the hunt as the outsider following his faultless win in Japan last Sunday, opened his catalogue of misjudgments in Australia when he lost second place by tangling with Robert Kubica, and then compounded that setback by spinning off at the next race in Malaysia, crashing in Monaco and throwing away the benefit of pole position in Turkey by running wide on the first lap. In a season when a missed braking point or a wheel marginally out of line just once during a 192-mile race can prove expensive, the imperfections of Barrichello and Vettel do not match up to Button’s steady but fast pace, coupled with forceful driving when necessary.
It looked like his run of victories would come to an early end when Button qualified fourth for the third round in Bahrain, but aggressive moves took him past Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in the opening laps. Very impressive speed in the middle of the Spanish Grand Prix took Button ahead of his disgruntled team-mate; overtaking moves during the opening laps in Italy and Japan helped earn points he might not otherwise have had.
Button made a rod for his own back by dominating the first third of the season and then failing to match such an impressive succession of wins. But, unless a driver has a vastly superior car similar to Mario Andretti’s Lotus 79 in 1978 or Nigel Mansell’s Williams in 1992, it is unusual for the champion to walk off with the title long before the season is done.
Button is not unique in suffering setbacks that have been interpreted as a sign of inadequacy. How different the current assessments might be if the season was reversed and he had experienced a difficult start before enjoying a succession of podium finishes in recent months. But none of that lessens the pressure that comes from entering the final two races in the role of defender rather than attacker. Button does not need reminding that, two years ago, Hamilton had a 17-point lead with two races remaining and yet the McLaren driver managed to lose the title by a single point thanks, in part, to allowing a natural flow to be stifled by thinking too much about the bigger picture.
A failure to finish in Brazil next Sunday would intensify the stress going into the final round in Abu Dhabi on 1 November. If Button remains calm, however, he should collect the championship he deserves by the simple yardstick of having scored more points than anyone else during a season lasting 17 races.
Button’s Brawn team all but secured the constructors’ title in Japan and now need just half a point to be out of Red Bull’s reach. And Button said the team had every reason to be proud this year.
“It has been a roller-coaster throughout the season but also last winter, so if it does happen then congratulations to everyone,” he said.
“Also, after such a difficult winter, we didn’t even think we would be on the grid in Australia so to come away with a victory there, and many victories this season, then to come away with the constructors’ title will be a very special feeling.”