Has Jenson Finally Ran Out of Grip?

By Fortis

Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article and please don't forget to comment

I have never been a fan of Jenson Button, that’s no secret. In recent times, I have grown increasingly tired of hearing various members of the media (Brundle, Herbert, Hill et al.) embarking on a ‘we want Jenson to remain in F1’ campaign, pleading for Ron Dennis or some other team to retain his services for the 2016 season. That reaction seemed more out of sympathy and nationalistic pride rather than his on track performances. 

When Jenson first entered the sport with Williams back in 2000, he was touted as the next great British Formula One superstar. Seven teams, 294 races, 15 wins, 8 pole positions and 1 World Championship later, is it now time for him to step aside? I say yes. I believe he has long overstayed his welcome and probably would have been replaced at the end of last season, had it not been for the concerted efforts of certain factions within the media.  

All the talk of how much of a true ‘British gentleman racer’ he is, sadly does not put bums on seats. I also doubt his name excites that many non-UK fans or instils fear in other drivers on track. Could he have caused scenes like that of which we saw at last Sunday’s British Grand Prix? I’ll answer that with an emphatic HELL NO! Especially when you consider that in his 17 seasons, he has never been on the podium at his home race.  Of his fifteen race wins, only seven were achieved during a race weekend at which it was fully dry. Six of those came at the start of the 2009 season with the dominant Brawn GP001, where he won six of the first seven races. The next dry weather race he won came at Spa in 2012. Coincidentally that remains his one and only pole position in 124 races for McLaren.  

His performance in the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix is arguably the greatest drive of his career, but even that was more down to fortune than his sheer brilliance. Yes, he overcame numerous pit stops, safety cars, a drive through penalty for his collision with Alonso, and a collision with his teammate Lewis Hamilton (I still maintain that he was to be blamed for that accident). However it took an error from Sebastian Vettel, running wide at T6 after hitting a damp patch on the last lap to secure victory. His 2009 title was also in my view very fortuitous and he could’ve so easily lost the championship to Sebastian Vettel had the German not sat out numerous practice sessions due to poor reliability with the future world champion looking to limit the mileage on his remaining engines.  

Just as in 2015, there are doubts as to whether or not he will be racing in F1 come next season with McLaren as there are already reports that he may be replaced by another incumbent of the McLaren driver program, Belgian sensation Stoffel Vandorne. In his first and only race so far for McLaren in the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix, Vandorne out qualified Button and scored the team’s first points of the season, finishing in 10th, whilst Button retired with a power unit related failure.  

But if he does remain, where could he go? The most vocal rumour currently doing the rounds centres on a possible return to Williams, the team with which he made his debut in 2000, to replace Felipe Massa who is out of contract at the end of the season. If this were to indeed happen, it would be his 18th consecutive season and the most of any driver in the sport’s history. One would then have to question Williams’ ambition as surely this is nothing more than a like for like swap with Massa. Statistically, both driver shares near identical career stats, with the only real differentiator being Jenson’s 2009 title. If Massa is indeed looking to retire, then would now not be the ideal time to partner Valtteri Bottas with a younger and more exciting up and coming driver, injecting new life and energy within the team? It’s not as if there’s any shortage of talent out there. Current development driver Alex Lynn, Mitch Evans, Jordan King and GP2 championship leader Olly Rowland are all excellent options. 

  In June, Claire Williams remarked, "He's a World Champion – the guy is extremely intelligent when it comes to building a team up around him and helping the engineering side develop the car over the course of the year.” 

 She was indeed correct in saying, “the guy is extremely intelligent when it comes to building a team up around him”, and this was no more evident than in 2011. His behind the scenes politics led to McLaren rallying the team around him and at the same time further destabilising an already unstable Lewis Hamilton. 

There is no doubting that Jenson is an intelligent person, but ‘helping the engineering side develop the car over the course of the year.”?  

I believe this is a very questionable statement, especially when one looks back at his time with Honda and most recently McLaren from mid-2012 through to 2015. In all the years at Honda, both the supposed development talents of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button failed to inject any front running pace at Honda. When Brawn effectively fitted a Mercedes engine into his super chassis, Button dominated the opening sequence of races, but over the course of the season, the team development moved towards the input of Barrichello, a man that in December 2015 Jock Clear described as "being lazy". Jenson would not win another race for Brawn GP that year.  Ross Brawn also singled out then test driver Anthony Davidson, for the work he did with helping to develop the GP001. Strangely Jenson's moments of success with Honda and Brawn directly correlates with Anthony Davidson being the team’s test driver, but as we know, correlation doesn’t always equal causation. 

Flavio Briatore the flamboyant former Renault team boss, in 2009 launched a scathing attack on the Brit after he won the opening two races of the season in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, "Our [Ferrari, McLaren and Renault] drivers are, or have been, world champions, and then you have a [Brawn] driver who was almost retired, and another who is paracarro’ (Italian for a road side post), fighting for the championship,"  

Following his win in Turkey, Jenson went on to score a further 34 points in the remaining 10 races of the season which was the lowest of all those who finished in the top 5 that year: 

Alibris UK: books, movies & music

 • Jenson Button 34pts 

• Sebastian Vettel 55pts 

• Rubens Barrichelo 42pts 

• Mark Webber 42pts 

• Lewis Hamilton 40pts 

The team was bought by Mercedes at the end of the 2009 season. If Button was so highly rated, why did Brawn not retain his services for the following season to race alongside Michael Schumacher? Why was he not considered as a possible replacement for Schumacher at the end of 2012? Surely given his history with team boss Ross Brawn, he would've been the ideal candidate? Was this yet another sign of Ross not believing in his ability to develop the car in the direction in which he wanted? 

His move to McLaren coincided with an upturn in the team’s fortunes after a shocking 2009 campaign. Yet Martin Whitmarsh’s decision to follow Button’s lead over incumbent Lewis Hamilton effectively meant that by 2012 the team was developing in two separate directions. Hamilton continued running near the front as he masked the car’s shortcomings but Button struggled on; eventually copying his team-mates settings to recover some ground. 

With Lewis moving to Mercedes, McLaren have been left in a wilderness these last few years with neither Button nor his young team-mates having the nous to push development forwards. The damage to the infrastructure looks so long term that even the famed Alonso ‘half a second’ is being swallowed up by the constant upgrades to a midfield car. 

Vacant seats in F1 are rare commodities, but when they do come along, some teams are reluctant to take the plunge to install young talented rookies in those seats. But what would’ve happened had McLaren and Ron Dennis not taken the decision to replace Montoya with their young protégé Lewis Hamilton? What if Red Bull had listened to everyone and not given teenager Max Verstappen his opportunity with Torro Rosso? Both teams took a risk and it paid off, surely it is time for Williams to do the same and pass on any interest that they may have in Jenson Button. 

Though a WDC and for all the praise he gets, there is nothing truly exceptional about Jenson that would make one stand up and go WOW on a weekly basis. I see him as more of a journey man who was extremely fortunate to be in the ‘right place at the right time’.   

Former McLaren driver John Watson speaking on last week’s F1 mid-week report on SkyF1, when discussing the driver market, remarked; 

"Formula One needs to bring in another generation of young drivers and we're at  a stage where we've got senior drivers, Jenson, Kimi, even Fernando Alonso coming to the back end of their career" 

A good case can be made for why Kimi was given a reprieve by Ferrari, but I'm not so sure there's one for Jenson.  

Jenson Button, you have finally run out of grip.