SUZUKA, Japan, (Reuters) – Jenson Button always knew he had the talent to reach the top in Formula One, he just lacked the tools.
Written off by some critics in recent years as an overpaid one-hit wonder with playboy tastes, the Briton now stands on the brink of a title that ranks as one of the sport’s most astonishing turnarounds.
The 29-year-old Brawn GP driver lined up in Australia in March with just one win under his belt from 153 starts but with a dominant car that he would go on to describe as “outrageous” and a “monster”.
Six races on, the Englishman had added five more victories and laid the foundations for a championship that would elevate him to the same level as the likes of compatriots Nigel Mansell and Lewis Hamilton.
Button could secure the crown in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, although that looked a long-shot on Saturday evening after he was handed a five-place grid penalty for failing to slow while yellow warning flags were being waved in qualifying.
Brazilian team mate and closest rival Rubens Barrichello, 15 points adrift with three races remaining, was handed a similar sanction after qualifying two places ahead of Button in fifth.
Button needs to finish at least five points clear of Barrichello today, a task that was looking difficult already with the overall leader managing only twice in the past 14 races to beat the Brazilian by such a margin.
One of the calmest and smoothest of drivers, Button will have lost little sleep over the fallout of a chaotic qualifying session.
As he said this week: “My dream is not to win it (the championship) in Suzuka, my dream is to win it.”
The boyhood dream had looked impossible at the end of last year when Honda announced they were pulling out of the sport, leaving Button and Barrichello both wondering where their careers were headed.
After his first season with Williams as a 20-year-old in 2000, a debut that promised great things, Button put his name to an autobiography entitled “My Life on the Formula One Rollercoaster”.
Neither he, nor father John who attends all his races as a jovial presence in the paddock, could ever have imagined the peaks and troughs that lay ahead.
Frank Williams had summoned Button, whose parents are divorced, to their first meeting by calling him on his mobile while the youngster was in a pub with friends. He swiftly made an impression.
Williams remains a strong admirer. “I think he would without doubt be the most gentlemanly winner, with pretty much zero rough edges,” he told Reuters in Suzuka. “A regular nice guy who never throws a wobbly.
“He’s a gentleman, a well-balanced individual.”
The youngest driver to score a point until Germany’s Sebastian Vettel came along in 2007, Button left Williams at the end of his first season to make way for Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya whose arrival had been pre-arranged.
He moved to Benetton, later to become Renault, but fell out of favour with team boss Flavio Briatore and made way for Spaniard Fernando Alonso.
Moving to BAR, which then became Honda and ultimately Brawn under the leadership of Ross Brawn, Button finished third in the championship in 2004 and secured a first, freakish, win in Hungary in 2006.
Along the way there were contractual disputes, that cost him and Honda many millions when he wanted to extricate himself from his obligations to Williams in 2005, and questions about his lifestyle.
Then the slide began. The 2007 and 2008 Hondas were pitifully uncompetitive and Button was left trundling around among the backmarkers. Many felt he had squandered his talents, seemingly destined to join the ranks of nearly men.
Honda’s departure could have killed off his career, instead he took a massive pay cut and revived his prospects in spectacular fashion.
With a Mercedes engine in the back of a car that Honda has lavished time and money on, Button started the season by leading a commanding one-two in Melbourne — the most successful debut by a team in 55 years.
In the space of one afternoon he had scored more points than in all of the previous two years.