This weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix marks Jenson Buttons 200th Grand Prix. To mark this milestone I’ll be taking a look at his F1 career to date. Jenson’s first taste of F1 machinery came in 1999 in a McLaren, his prize for winning the coveted McLaren Aurosport BRDC young driver of the year award at the end of 1998. He also tested for the Prost team before Sir Frank Williams decided to pit him against Bruno Junqueira in a ‘shootout’ and winning the battle to replace the axed Alex Zanardi as Ralf Schumacher’s team-mate for the 2000 season.
Jenson made history becoming the youngest British driver to compete in F1 when he took his place on the grid for the first race in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix. Despite qualifying second to last for his first race, Jenson drove an excellent race to and was looking good to pick up a point for a sixth place finish until his BMW V10 blew up with only 11 laps to go. He didn’t have to wait long to score his first point however. At the next race in Brazil, at Interlagos, Jenson picked up the point that was robbed from him in Australia, finishing Sixth. Five more points finishes were knocked up in his debut season, the highpoint coming in Germany where he finished fourth. Although Jenson had signed a three year deal with Williams. The team were eager to put 2000’s indy 500 race winner Juan Pablo Montoya in the car for 2001, buying the Columbian out of his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing. After a dip in form towards the end of his debut season, Williams opted to loan out their young driver to Benetton to give him more time to develop while pairing Montoya with Ralf Schumacher.
Joining the Benetton team, newly bought out by Renault, Jenson was partnered by Italian Giancarlo Fisichella in the uncompetitive B201. Button was regularly outperformed by his more experienced team-mate and questions were starting to be asked about his commitment to the sport due to his over exuberant ‘play boy’ life style. Team boss Flavio Briatore issued him with this ultimatum “Either he shows he’s super-good or he leaves the top echelon of drivers” His season highlight, again coming at Germany with his only points finish of the season, picking up two points for fifth.
Despite his poor season the year before, Jenson retained his seat at the now re-named Renault team. Jarnu Trulli was drafted in as his new team-mate and the team made good progress over the winter and headed into the season with a renewed confidence. A DNF in the first race didn’t deter the Frome Flyer and at the second round at Sepang looked odds on to take his first podium before a suspension problem in the closing stages dropped him from third to fourth. Trulli is well renowned for his qualifying exploits so it was little surprise to see Jenson starting regularly behind the Italian on the grid. Trulli couldn’t translate his qualifying pace into consistent finishes with Button picking up seven points finishes to finish the season in seventh place in the championship, five points and one place ahead of his team-mate.
Jenson’s desire to stay with the French team had little effect on Briatore who decided to replace Button with the teams test driver, Fernando Alonso for the following season. Briatore once again calling him a “Lazy Playboy”.
British American Racing was Button’s destination for 2003 where he was welcomed by team boss Dave Richards, but not so much by his new team-mate, 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve who claimed the team “had only hired him for marketing purposes.” The driver’s relations were strained further at the first race in Australia when Villeneuve stayed out a lap too long for his pit stop for fuel, forcing Button queue up behind him in the pit lane costing him vital second in the race. Villeneuve blamed a faulty radio, Button disagreed! During practice for the Monaco Grand Prix, Jenson suffered a massive crash into the chicane after exiting the tunnel, losing control at around 180MPH, rendering him unconscious for a short time. He was held overnight in hospital for observation and missed the race, returning for the next round in Canada.
Jenson was to make Jacques eat his pre season words by consistently outperforming the ex World Champion, again with a season best finish of fourth coming in Austria and Japan.
Joined in the BAR 006 by Japanese rookie Takuma Sato, becoming a teams lead driver for the first time. He was in confident mood ahead of the season opener after an impressive winter testing programme “This year I could be a front-runner. We want to run alongside the top teams. I want to be consistently in the points and on the podium.”Jenson was to go on to have by far his best season to date, scoring his first career podium at the second round in Malaysia and followed it up two weeks later in Bahrain to bank back to back third place finishes. In a season dominated by the Ferrari’s of Schumacher and Barrichello, Jenson went on to score points in every race he finished, only failing to see the chequered flag on 3 occasions to finish 3rd in the driver’s championship with 85 points and helping BAR finish second in the constructors championship.
During the latter half of 2004, Jenson was embroiled in a contract dispute Between Williams and BAR, The dispute went to Formula One’s Contract Recognition Board, who ruled in favour of BAR ‘forcing’ Jenson to stay. During the winter Honda bought a 45% stake in the team, Dave Richards went as team principle as a result being replaced by Nick Fry. None of this seemed to have a positive effect on the resulting BAR 007. A lacklustre 11th followed by two retirement wasn’t anything like the team were expecting but things were going to get far worse for the team and Button at San Marino. After finishing third, the race stewards found the team’s cars to have a second fuel tank hidden within the main tank. As is the norm after the race, the cars are drained of fuel to make sure they meet the minimum weight requirements. After the second tank was drained, the cars were found to be over 5kg under weight. The FIA acted, stripping Button and Sato of their points from the race and banning the team for the following two races. Jenson and the team were again forced not to race in the US GP along with most of the grid after safety concerns from tyre supplier, Michelin. Jenson did manage to make the podium twice towards the end of the year at Germany and Belgium but 9th in the driver’s championship and only 37 point, it was a year to forget by enlarge.