Jensen Button - Driven to Win

David E. Langford continues his series on Oxfordshire motorsport heroes who have inspired his work.


Jensen Button in the Williams BMW FW22 – from an original by D E Langford

I have seen Jenson Button on a number of occasions testing various Formula One cars at Silverstone, but without any shadow of doubt, the most inspiring occasion was in 2006, when he was testing the new Honda just before the British Grand Prix.

My wife and I both agreed that after seeing this performance, a long-awaited win was on the cards for this underrated driver. As it turned out we were not far wrong, for later in the year Jenson stormed to victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix.

At the time, Damon Hill was quoted as saying that there was nothing stopping Jenson from achieving the world championship. Damon pointed out that he too had won his first Formula One race at the Hungarian Grand Prix and then went on to win the world title.

Jenson's biography reveals, above all else, an uncommon but appealing sense of modesty in one so young. In a branch of motorsport which can be dreadfully unforgiving in every aspect, he remains focused and unruffled by the inevitable criticism from the media, with or without this astounding win under his belt.

There remains a considerable task ahead but, like him, we are cautiously optimistic for the future Grand Prix series. To quote another of my heroes, Dylan Thomas: 'We must begin at the beginning'.

One understandable low point in Jenson Button's life was the separation of his parents when he was a mere seven years-of-age. He left behind his home in Frome, Somerset, for a new home in Bicester, which he shared with his father, John. A time Jenson describes as his 'Men Behaving Badly' period. Anyone who remembers the TV comedy series will understand the reference.

Like many boys who are interested in mechanical things, Jenson Button's first real toy was a small 49cc Yamaha moto-cross motorcycle. His instinctive desire to go faster on two wheels was met by his father's instinctive parental responsibility to get his son on to four wheels after watching other boys crashing rather too often in junior moto-cross events.

Motorcycles represent a firm foundation on which to build car driving skills and, like his motorcycling predecessors in Formula One, Damon Hill and Ayrton Senna, Jenson was no exception.

Then John Button took his son to the racing car show at Earls Court where he consulted an old friend, Keith Ripp, who manufactured karts under the 'Rippspeed' banner, Keith was producing karts for a new class of racing called Cadets, for children between eight and 12. This was the beginning of Jenson's experience on tarmac circuits.

His first race was in 1988 at a kart track in Dorset known as Clay Pigeon, and even though he started at the back of the grid, he managed to carve his way to the front and win first time out.

The larger and faster kart classes were the breeding ground for many Formula One drivers including Senna and Michael Schumacher and, like these drivers, he was to follow the natural progression through karts to Formula Ford.

The next milestone in his career was a fully professional works Renault drive in Formula Three at the tender age of 18.

At Silverstone in 1998 Jenson Button got the break he had been waiting for, a test drive in a McLaren Fl car, part of his prize for winning the British Racing Drivers' Club Autosport Young Driver of the Year award.

The test with McLaren was soon followed up with an invitation from four times world champion Alain Prost to test one of his own team cars in Barcelona. Jean Alesi had been testing the Prost cars at Catalunya for two days with a fastest lap of 1 m 24.8s. At the end of the session he equalled Alesi's lap times, a truly magnificent achievement at his first attempt, considering that he had not driven the car before.

In the small world of Fl. Frank Williams got to hear of the young Briton's performance in Spain, and in a very short space of time, Jenson was an official driver with the BMW Williams team and the press went wild. With his photo on the front page of The Times the only way was up. Or was it?

If the past record of previous drivers for the Williams team were anything to go by, one could never be too confident. As it happened, Jenson was eventually recruited by Benetton Renault after his place at Williams was taken by Juan Pablo Montoya. To be fair, Jenson stated from the outset that he knew this would be the case when he joined the team, but that did nothing to stop press speculation.

He drove for the Renault team until 2003, when he joined BAR. Honda and proceeded to outperform his team-mate, the ex-world champion Jacques Villeneuve. In 2004, with a more competitive car, he began to get pole positions and to lead races, before collecting that first victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix.

So far this season, Jenson has been struggling with an uncompetitive car - and has been overshadowed by the relentless rise of the latest British Grand Prix driver, Lewis Hamilton. But, if there is any justice in the world, there should be more wins for the underrated Button on the cards.

• For details and commissions of D.E. Langford's work Call 01865 434359. Jenson Button: My life on the Formula One Rollercoaster by Jenson Button and David Tremayne, Bantam Press - 2002 (ISBN: 059304875X).
July 2007 Oxfordshire Limited Edition