Button has his moment at last
The rendition of We are the Champions that Jenson Button screeched to his team on the radio as he finished the Brazilian Grand Prix in fifth place to become the 2009 F1 World Champion would have had Queen wincing; such was the combined effect of sheer exultation and disbelief on his already croaky voice.
It came after an altogether more assured performance as the 29-year-old clawed his way from fourteenth on the grid to fifth, courtesy of some breathtaking passing manoeuvres under pressure, a searing pace when he needed it, and a little bit of champion’s luck, to become the tenth British driver to win the world championship he joins Mike Hawthorne, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton in the history books.
Button’s critics will no doubt point to the second half of the 2009 season where having won six of the first seven races he started to race more conservatively losing points to the on-form Barrichello as reason to question his place alongside the aforementioned greats.
But it was precisely that controlled aggression that had proved so pivotal in the second half of his campaign that enabled him to triumph in Sau Paulo where all around him others were falling off the track.
The chips were not only down but looking increasingly flimsy going into the penultimate race of the season. Button emerged from a chaotic rain-delayed qualifying hour in fourteenth place while his teammate and championship protagonist planted his Brawn on pole position, much to the delight of the home crowd.
And he must have been wondering if the gods were on his side in the opening few laps of the race as incident after incident shook up the field around him in what must have seemed like some kind of perverted higher level plan to set him up to fail.
Collisions and tangles galore, cars getting set on fire, a safety car, and off-track fisticuffs. Miraculously Button emerged unscathed.
The same could not be said of Jarno Trulli and Adrian Sutil who tangled on the exit of Turn 5 collecting Fernando Alonso in the process. A heated exchange bordering on pub brawl between the Italian and the German ensued. Helmets stayed firmly on. Three less cars for Button to worry about between himself and Barrichello.
Kimi Raikkonen would also have been part of the buffer had he not had to stop for a new nose cone after a coming together with Sutil at the first corner. The Finn got more than he reckoned with after Heikki Kovalainen who pitted due to a separate incident with Giancarlo Fisichella drove off from his pit box with the fuel hose still attached, spraying fuel into Raikkonen’s pathway and triggering a small pitlane fire right in front of the Ferrari driver.
That is precisely the kind of ill-luck that strikes the champion-in-waiting in Sau Paulo, host to the world championship battle for the last five years. Today it seemed, Button was to be spared.
At the restart Button gave a formidable demonstration of why he is every bit deserving of his world champion status. Knowing that he had to finish within a four point striking distance of Barrichello, Button turned on the style and dispatched Renault rookie Romain Grosjean with a breathtaking pass down the inside of Turn 5, before making light work of Williams’ Kazuki Nakajima in the run down to Senna ‘S’.
Toyota’s feisty stand-in, Japanese driver Kamui Kobayshi, halted Button’s charge somewhat with some impressive defensive driving, but the Brawn driver again exercised patience by seizing his opportunity when it came ten laps later to get ahead of the Toyota.
At the front Rubens Barrichello, spurred on by his legions of fans that have so often been let down (Barrichello has retired from the Brazilian Grand Prix no fewer than eleven times out of seventeen attempts), was getting the hammer down. But as the lightest of the front-runners he was forced to put early and that dropped him back down the field behind Jenson Button who had yet to stop.
Then it all started to unravel for the Brazilian veteran. Unable to muster the same kind of pace he had managed on his first stint, the Brawn driver lost the lead to Red Bull’s Mark Webber and BMW Sauber’s Robert Kubica who had both made use of a longer stint by setting blistering lap times out in front.
With Barrichello in third place Button only had to finish sixth to prevent the title being decided in Abu Dhabi.
Worse was still to come for the hapless Brazilian. With only eight laps remaining Sau Paulo dished out one last serving of ill-luck, and in line with tradition, Barrichello was forced to pit with a puncture, dropping to eighth place at the chequered flag.
Barrichello’s unscheduled stop promoted Lewis Hamilton to third place.
Sebastian Vettel, who went into the race with a small chance of taking the title fight to Abu Dhabi matched Jenson Button throughout the race and eventually leapfrogged the Brawn driver to take fourth place.
Kimi Raikkonen clawed his way back to sixth place ahead of Sebastian Buemi and the out-of-luck Barrichello.
Button meanwhile struggled to contain his emotions after achieving his childhood dream of becoming world champion.
“It’s really amazing,” he said. “After the last few races I’ve had this makes up for it. It was a totally awesome race, I’m world champion!
“It’s 21 years since I first raced a kart. I love winning, I never expected to be world champion in F1, because you think racing drivers in F1 are different from you. But I did it today.”
Button’s achievement comes after nine character building years in Formula One. The 29-year-old knows just how cruel Formula One can be better than most. After his impressive debut for Williams in 2000, he spent two trying years at the back of the grid with the poorly performing Benetton team before effectively being sacked by Flavio Briatore in favour of Fernando Alonso in 2003.
He took refuge with British American Racing in 2003 and the following year affirmed his place in Formula One with ten podiums and his first pole position.
Then it all started to go down hill again. He found himself embroiled in a contractual row and BAR blocked his planned move to Williams until the end of 2005. Two years later it would come back to haunt him as BAR were on the insurgence with Honda backing and he wanted to stay at the Brackley team rather than move to Williams who conversely had just lost backing from BMW.
The ill-handling Honda cars for 2007 and 08 saw Button entrenched at the back of the grid and then came the news that Honda were pulling out of the sport.
Having spent two years in the shadow of his Renault replacement Fernando Alonso and then Britain’s new star Lewis Hamilton, Button was left wondering whether he would have a drive at all.
Then Ross Brawn stepped into save the team, and the rest as they say is history.
In 2003 Flavio Briatore – now extracted from the sport for his involvement in fixing the Singapore Grand Prix – said of his decision to replace Button at Renault: “time will tell if I am wrong.”
Indeed it has Flavio.