Why F1 would be mad to lose Jenson Button
Fernando Alonso's push for a McLaren-Honda seat has put Jenson Button's F1 future in jeopardy. But the British ace still has plenty to offer the sport
Jenson Button's smile looks like the real thing, and in a 2014 context that's just a little bit unusual. For too long he's worn a distracted look, and it's not just the pain of losing his beloved father John and not having him there at each race. Or, in this first season since John's passing, having the wounds inevitably re-opened as each grand prix reactivates different sets of memories around the world.
It's Thursday afternoon in Suzuka - pre-Vettel bombshell - and Jenson has just been asked what he thinks he brings to McLaren. Of course he knows where this is going because way back in May, newly returned boss Ron Dennis was busy telling the world that Button needed to raise his game. That was when all the speculation began that 2014 could be Button's last season with the team for whom he has won eight grands prix since arriving fresh from winning the world championship with Brawn GP in 2009.
"How long have you got?" he asks, breaking into easy laughter. It's good to see, because for a moment you get a glimpse of the old Jenson, the easy-going but inherently super-fit and focused racer who, in 2011, proved himself the only team-mate ever able to beat Hamilton over the course of a season. And the man who, in their three years together, scored 672 points to Lewis's 657. It's a reminder that, while Jenson might not be the greatest qualifier, you underestimate him at your peril. Ask Sebastian Vettel, who still has nightmares about Canada 2011...
"If you beat Lewis, you know you've done a great job," Button suggests - with some justification. "Throughout our last season he was quicker than me in qualifying, but I scored more points than him over the three years, so I'm doing something right! I think you have to be careful about relying solely on your natural ability. That is something you are gifted, but you really have to work on other areas to be a great F1 driver these days. I'm always looking for new areas in which to improve myself. That's why this sport is great. In F1 there's always more technology, always something more to learn."
But now, Button risks being written off as another Rubens Barrichello: a naturally talented stylist with terrific speed, but only when everything is right. A B+ veteran of 15 years in the school of hard knocks surrounded not just by A-class hard men, such as Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, but an increasing influx of hungry and ever younger cubs, such as his current McLaren team-mate Kevin Magnussen, Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen, who don't care who they claw on their way to the top.
Those who know Jenson well believe he has more wins in him, and deserves to keep his McLaren drive. But the defection of Vettel to Ferrari, where he'll replace Fernando Alonso, makes that seem ever more unlikely as the Spaniard seeks a seat when the music stops.
Sky commentator Martin Brundle firmly believes that Button still warrants a seat at McLaren next year: "He deserves it, because he's still got what it takes. He's not overawed by the younger upcoming drivers, and his experience still counts. I know he's hurt about all the waiting, and feels he's blown Kevin away in terms of points this year and deserves another chance. But it's fair to say that he's had his chances and that, of course, he can't be in it forever. He has to accept that his Formula 1 career will come to an end one day, and that it's not anything personal.