Jenson Button has always been one of the more likeable guys on the grid. He has done it all- he drove for some of the best teams ever, won races, and became a world champion.
Despite that, there have always been questions around where he stands among the elite of the sport. It was interesting to hear Daniel Ricciardo's claim recently that Button was probably one of the most underrated drivers on the grid.
That brings us to the question: "Just how good was Jenson Button?"
Where does he rank amongst the best to ever do it? To find the answer, let's roll back the clock and look back at the career Button had.
Jenson Button started his career at Williams in 2000 as a young British prospect with a lot of hype behind him. He was rated very highly by Patrick Head and Gerhard Berger, amongst others. During his early years, while he was able to justify the hype he had behind him, he lacked stability as he was constantly having to jump teams.
Button had a year at Williams, where he teamed up well against Ralf Schumacher. He then spent a year with Bennetton, which then got re-branded to Renault in 2002. He was replaced by Alonso at Renault for the 2003 season, and it was then that he finally found a home at BAR Honda (British American Racing) in 2003.
At BAR, Button was looked at as the catalyst that would drive the team towards the front of the pack. That's what he did in 2004, as his 10 podiums in 18 races took him to third in the drivers' standings, and BAR Honda to second in the constructors' championship.
All BAR Honda needed was another step towards the front so that they could start challenging for wins. Sadly, that never happened, as McLaren and Renault stole the march on everyone with the rule changes in 2005, and BAR found themselves back in the midfield.
The Honda Partnership: Part 1
Honda finally took over the team entirely, and the team was rebranded as Honda F1 Racing in 2006. Great things were expected from the team at the time, especially with the added resources onboard and a good baseline. Even though Button was able to win his first race in Hungary, the season was far from satisfying, and Honda were never really close to the pace at the front.
They showed glimpses of pace here and there, but they were never able to realistically fight for the title. 2007 was supposed to be better, but disaster struck for Button. In 2007, the car had poor down-force, and Honda were nowhere close to the front. Both Button and his teammate Rubens Barrichello were left to fight at the back of the grid throughout the season, with improvements hard to come by and nothing seemingly working for the Japanese outfit.
2008 was more or less the same story, as team principal Ross Brawn gave up on the car's development to focus all resources on the 2009 project that was to have a complete regulations overhaul.
Sadly for Honda, due to the economic crisis in 2008, they had to withdraw from F1 in December 2008. Jenson Button was left without a drive for the 2009 season unless the team became operational again.
In a fortuitous turn of events, Ross Brawn took over the team from Honda and renamed it Brawn GP, and this gave Button a seat in the 2009 season. Much to the surprise of everyone on the paddock including the team itself, the Brawn GP car turned out to be in a class of its own as soon as it took to the track during testing.
The team seemingly had a head start with the innovative double diffuser, and dominated the field in the first half of the season. Button, on his part, capitalised to win 6 of the first 7 races.
With a paucity of resources and other teams catching up, Button wouldn't win another race through the rest of the season, but still manage to sneak through to win his first and only championship.
It was a complete turnaround of fortunes for Button. He went on to sign for McLaren in 2010, alongside British sensation and one of the best drivers on the grid, Lewis Hamilton.
Driving for McLaren Mercedes
The common consensus on the grid was that it was career suicide for Button. Despite winning the championship, Button still had his doubters, as many attributed the championship triumph to the car and not him. Many experts thought he would get dominated and get utterly exposed by Hamilton's brilliance.
On the contrary, Button fared very well against Hamilton, although the latter would finish ahead in the standings in two out of the three seasons they were together. Although Lewis always had the edge when it came to qualifying, Button would make up for the gap more often than not with his race pace and pinpoint decision-making skills.
It was during this partnership that Button put together some of the best drives of his career in wet weather, and was always the driver to look out for whenever the conditions were dynamic. Because of his performance, he was always treated on even keel with Hamilton at McLaren. Although it has never been made public, this could have been one of the reasons behind Hamilton leaving McLaren for Mercedes at the end of 2012 season.
The Honda Partnership: Part 2
The McLaren-Honda reunion, amid huge fanfare, had a lot of optimism around it. So much so that McLaren were able to sign Fernando Alonso, one of the best drivers (if not the best) on the grid at the time. All the hype came to bust when the Honda engine turned out to be below par, much to the frustration of both the drivers and the team alike.
The engine was underpowered, lacked reliability, and turned McLaren into a backmarker. Button and Alonso, two former World Champions, were seen driving the wheels off the car with next to nothing results to show. There was a noticeable improvement for the team as the years rolled by, but the partnership never lived up to the expectations, and even on a good day, the car never had a shot at even a podium.
It was a sense of deja vu for Button, as for the second time in his career, the Honda partnership that had promised so much yielded so little. There were a few good races here and there, and Button did manage to outscore Alonso in one season during their time together.
However, it all amounted to nothing as the car was just nowhere close to the front. Throughout their partnership, Button did fare pretty well against Alonso, and was more than a match for the Spaniard on multiple occasions. Considering the circumstances, Button took a sabbatical after the 2016 season, and that turned out to be his last full season in F1.
So how good was Button? It's tough to quantify something like that. He can't be put in the same bracket as the greats of the sport because his numbers don't match up that well against them. He doesn't have the numbers of a Fernando Alonso or a Lewis Hamilton or a Sebastian Vettel. That's probably because he drove competitive machinery for a very limited period during his career.
But at the same time, in the same machinery, he was more than a match for both Hamilton and Alonso, and was able to beat both of them in a single season in the same car. There were days where Button would be in a class of his own.
Everything would click, and on these days, there was no one on the grid that could hold a candle to him. But then at the same time, there were days when he just wasn't able to put it all together, and was too sensitive to the changes in the car.
If we had to reach a decision, Jenson Button would be one of the more reliable drivers on the grid, who in the right car can challenge consistently and win Championships. He was not as versatile as a Fernando Alonso, nor was he as fast as Lewis Hamilton on a single lap. But when you put all the pieces together, Button was capable of outpacing any rival on his day and in the right car.
Published 03 May 2020, 20:03 IST