With the departure of Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, there is a clear number one position at Mclaren for the first time since the Mika Hakkinen-David Coulthard era; the man expected to deliver this time is the most experienced driver in the sport and 2009 World Champion Jenson Button.
With critics already suggesting this could be the worst Mclaren season for some years, is there any reason to assume otherwise? On paper, the Button/Perez pairing is a gamble compared to the tried and tested Alonso/Massa and Vettel/Webber partnerships of Mclaren rivals Red Bull and Ferrari.
Button has been here before – in 2004 he became de facto team leader at BAR after the departure of 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve. That Villeneuve had ridiculed Button at the start of the 2003 season only made the Canadian look ridiculous when he eventually turned his back on the team before the year was out, being comprehensively outperformed by the young Brit. Button’s tenure in the number one slot lasted on through two seasons until Rubens Barrichello arrived at the Honda squad (BAR was bought out by Honda in 2006) after a bruising six-year stint as Michael Schumacher’s understudy at Ferrari. During this time he capitalised on a very quick 2004 machine in the shape of the BAR 006 to score nine podiums and was unlucky to be denied victory through a combination of bad luck and bad planning, although 2005 was more disappointing as he was forced to lead the team through the disgrace of a three-race ban for fuel tank irregularities after the San Marino Grand Prix. He bounced back with pole position in Canada but was eliminated from the race after scraping his car along the infamous ‘wall of champions’.
Pre-season testing ahead of 2006 saw Barrichello and Button neck-and-neck and the team looked set for a successful year as potential title-challengers; as things turned out the car was a dog and only a 3rd place for Button in Malaysia brought any cheer. Pole in Australia was converted into a spectacular engine failure just yards from the finish line that caused many a red face in Honda’s engine department. The wet Hungarian Grand Prix in early August saw Button take that now legendary first win while Barrichello dropped off the pace after running strongly in the opening stages.
Similarly in 2007 it was Button who delivered as Barrichello ended a season pointless for the first time in his lengthy career – the roles reversed somewhat in 2008 as Rubens took the lion’s share of Honda points (14 was a total not to be boasted about however). Re-vitalised with that Brawn car for 2009 it’s probably superfluous to outline what happened, but once again Button led the charge and came away with the title.
Jenson’s strengths appear to lie in man-management; not once in his crushingly disappointing BAR and Honda career did he lambast the team, as would have been so easy to do. Each weekend he presented that smiling, optimistic face to the media and although this marked him out somewhat as a figure of fun while compatriot Lewis Hamilton steamed to the 2008 title, it gave the backroom boys at Brackley the encouragement and belief that their work could make the difference. His driving was solid and error-free, netting the team vital results on days when others fell off the track.
The weaknesses are perhaps all too familiar after the 2012 debacle that saw Button running behind a Caterham in Monaco – setup and tyre temperature. Unlike Hamilton, Button struggles with the balance of the car and needs it in a very fine window to drive to the maximum. While all is well he can outpace virtually anyone but the minute oversteer kicks in the speed appears to have all but vanished, as was painstakingly clear in the Canadian Grand Prix last year when he burnt through set after set of tyres to no avail. In 2009 he seemed to hesitate and hold back in order to protect his championship leads and many contributed this to a case of ‘tightening up’ mentally and shrinking back from direct battles with title competitors Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel. The drive at Interlagos put paid to some of those claims, but there remains a camp of thought that still believe that 2009 triumph could have been celebrated sooner had Button remained on maximum attack for longer.
While Jenson should have no trouble handling the challenge of Perez mentally, nor inspiring the Mclaren team to keep forging ahead, if his results suffer the same erratic peaks and troughs they did in 2012 it will be difficult to see Mclaren as anything other than ‘also-rans’.
‘I am part of the furniture, part of the family here now.’ The former Champion claimed in a recent interview with website AskMen. ‘So they will look to me for results but I don’t think there will be any more pressure at all. I have fought for championships and won championships, and that is pressure. When you’re in a car which can win every race, or fight for a win every race, that is pressure. But I have had that for the last four years.’
Button’s been there before and done that. He might just surprise us. A certain moustachioed former World Champion once claimed Button ‘would never win a race’…