There is but a single accolade in sport than transcends the sporting world itself. It is to become one of those rare people who are universally liked by both fans and their peers whilst still achieving great success. Sir Alex Ferguson is the most successful football manager of all time but there are many managers and fans who would profess an intense disliking towards him. On the other end of the scale it is impossible not to like British swimmer Hannah Miley but she has never succeeded in winning an Olympic medal. It is said that nice guys always finish second. It takes a rare and truly special sportsperson to buck this well attested trend. Jenson Button is one such man.
When Jenson Button began racing in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton was still a teenager racing karts and Max Verstappen was only two years old. He became Formula 1’s youngest driver and in only his second race, Formula 1’s youngest point scorer. That is not to say Button’s initial impact in Formula 1 was sensational. He only lasted a single season at Williams and was replaced by Fernando Alonso at Renault after two years with the team. Faced with adversity, criticism about his lifestyle and doubts about his ability to compete in Formula 1, Button displayed his trademark resilience when he moved to BAR Honda in 2003.
Button’s six years at Honda were tumultuous but ultimately were the making of him as both a driver and a man. After comfortably beating his teammate and former World Champion Jack Villeneuve in his first season he performed extraordinarily in 2004 – finishing 3rd in the World Championship; only behind two dominant Ferrari drivers. Like many of the greats, Button excelled in testing conditions. In the heavy rain in Hungary in 2006 Button started down in 14th place but a series of clean and decisive overtaking movies – including passing Michael Schumacher – catapulted Button up to 4th place after just 10 laps. Button showed an extraordinary sensitivity as he caressed his car around corners at the very limits of its capacity – ultimately winning the race by over 30 seconds. This was man and machine in perfect harmony – Button looked like a world champion elect. Sadly, Honda’s financial issues and unreliability would prevent him from having a serious chance of winning the championship until 2009.
After Honda went bust at the end of the 2008 season the team’s future – and their driver’s – were in serious jeopardy. When Ross Brawn took over the team, Button took a 50% pay cut and was a 50/1 long shot to win the title. Brawn stunned the racing world, with Button making history by winning 6 of the first 7 races in the Championship. As Brawn’s initial manufacturing advantage faded, Button’s championship lead shortened going into the penultimate race of the season in Brazil. Qualifying in 14th place and under enormous pressure, Button fought through the pack heroically to finish fifth and clinch the title. He had beaten his supremely talented teammate Rubens Barrichello, he had beaten the Red Bulls – at long last, Jenson Button was Champion of the World.
a man with true class and humility
During the past six seasons Button has been a driver and ambassador for the McLaren team. He has recently joined an elite group of drivers by competing in his 300th race – some of which will go down in the sport’s history. His epic battles with Lewis Hamilton saw him win a legendary 17 lap battle in Australia in 2010 and he took a more one-sided victory at Spa in 2012. His finest hour was a captivating victory at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix – rising from last to first in the space of just 30 laps; on his way to finishing 2nd in the Championship and consistently outpacing and outracing Hamilton. Despite racing alongside some of the most competitive and volatile drivers in the sport’s history during the last 16 years, nobody on the grid has a bad word to say about Button. Lewis Hamilton has called him ‘extraordinary’, whilst Fernando Alonso described him as the ‘best teammate I’ve ever had.’ Similarly, Button has been a fan favourite throughout his time in the sport – loved not just for his driving talent but for his approachable, generous and gentlemanly personality.
Following the announcement that Button would not race in 2017 – nor in all likelihood ever again – the world’s fastest sport stood still for just a moment. The grid will be a strange place without him. Throughout recent history Formula 1 has produced an array of unpopular champions – from Michael Schumacher to Lewis Hamilton. Standing above them all is Jenson Button; a man with true class and humility. Loved by fans and respected by drivers he is the rarest of sportsmen – a nice guy who finished first.