Jenson Button: The likely Hollywood hero
Jenson Button epitomises why we watch sport. Why millions of people around the world will sit down in front of a TV screen and watch 20 very similar-looking cars drive very fast around a twisty piece of track.
It is also why the drivers can earn a huge amount of money for doing that.
The against-the-odds, boyhood-dream-achieving, critic-defying, will-he-won’t-he story is almost cliched. Almost, but not quite. What it actually is, and has been for the past season, is completely and utterly gripping.
It is now a well-told tale. A year ago, Jenson Button, on the verge of the ninth season of his Formula One career, did not have a car to drive. His former team, Honda, had pulled out of the sport the previous December. With just three weeks to go before the opener in Melbourne, Ross Brawn came to the rescue and Brawn GP was born.
“It’s an amazing story, a Hollywood movie for sure – if it happens,” Button said before Brazil. That was after he had won six out of the first seven Grand Prix of the season, led the drivers’ championship from the start and was just a handful of points away from winning it. All in a car that had gone through little testing and had been built by people who didn’t know if they would have a job from one day to the next. You can understand Button’s cinematic logic.
The narrative had been building way before 2008, however. It began 21 years ago when Button started karting. He showed promise early – as an 18-year-old he became the youngest ever winner of the European Super A Championship.
In 2000, as a 20-year-old, he made his Formula One debut with Williams, scoring 12 points in his first season to finish eighth in the championship. However, his desire was questioned. He was dubbed the playboy of Formula One – with pin-up good looks and reports of a party lifestyle, many wondered whether all that talent would go to waste.
Perhaps the threat of not getting to do the job he loves turned it around. Or perhaps it was simply a case of growing maturity. Whatever it was, we saw a new Jenson Button this season. He dominated from the outset, getting the most out of a car that was faster than its rivals.
Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain, Spain, Monaco, Turkey. The wins stacked up and the title seemed in the bag. His snatched pole position on the streets of Monte Carlo was arguably his finest hour. However, a Hollywood tale would not be complete without a twist, a delay to the desired resolution. The following eight Grand Prix after Istanbul stretched out the action. Button failed to make the podium in all but one of the races and the doubters returned, the antagonists to the British driver’s protagonist.
Was he choking, unable to close out the title, showing a lack of mental fortitude? Of course not. He was being challenged by other quality drivers whose cars were improving, as they usually do in Formula One. The sport combines some of the most talented athletes with supremely intelligent minds – they were hardly going to back off and let Button ease to the drivers’ championship.
Significantly, while he may not have been on the podium, he was still scoring points. Button has so far only retired once this season, which was also the only occasion on which he did not add to his championship tally. Compare that with his current closest rival, Sebastian Vettel, who scored maximum points on three occasions, but failed to come away with any in five races.
Sao Paulo was yet another display of Button doing what he had to do, but in aggressive, mesmerising and exciting style. His conversion of a 14th grid position into a fifth-place finish in an event-filled race at Interlagos was the mark of a world champion in waiting.
Mr Supreme was followed by Mr Consistency, who ended up Mr Ectastic, Overwhelmed, Elated, Emotional, Grateful – the list, I’m sure, goes on. As he crossed the finish line with Felipe Massa still waving the chequered flag energetically, he punched the air in triumph. A warbled version of We Are the Champions materialised over the team radio. TV (or movie) gold.
“Every morning I wake up, until next season, I’m going to have a smile on my face,” he said on his return to Britain yesterday.
“I’ve had a difficult time of it in the past. It’s about staying strong in the difficult times. You need good people around you to keep you positive and keep your feet on the ground. I’ve made mistakes along the way but I’ve put them right and I think people appreciate that.”
Put that to the tune of New York, New York, and you’ve got yourself a song. Pitch it to a Hollywood director and you’ve got yourself a movie.