With the rise of Hamilton and the fall of Honda, Jenson Button’s influence in F1 was fading. Winning the Drivers’ Championship would be the perfect response.
On the 4th March 2009, Jenson Button, a regular in the F1 paddock since 2000, didn’t have a car for the new season which was due to start on the 29th March. He, along with another experienced driver Rubens Barrichello, had been part of the old Honda team who had withdrawn from the F1 grid due to the global financial crisis. Button had shown promise in Karting, Formula Ford and Formula 3 as a youngster and Williams decided to take a gamble on him in 2000, where he managed to finish 8th in the Championship. This was considered a very respectable return for a debutant, while there were whisperings of a future drivers champion back home in Britain. Button was the 157th British Formula 1 driver yet there had only been 8 world champions and none of those had been since 1996 (with only 2 since 1972). British drivers were no longer the dominant force in formula 1, however many were starting to believe that Button could break that duck.
As it happens, a Brit won the Driver’s Championship in 2008 but that wasn’t Jenson Button. The years between his debut and then had been littered with changing teams and results going in the wrong direction. His team-mates, including Jacques Villeneuve, and other people high within F1 claimed he was too much of a play-boy, said he was lazy and wanted to live the highlife rather than be determined to succeed. In 2007 his place as the number 1 British driver, with a respectful nod to the ever reliable David Coulthard, was taken by the young and exciting prospect: Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton almost won the title in his first season, finishing runner up to Kimi Raikkonen, however he made up for that by pipping Felipe Massa to the title in the next season, taking victory on the final corner! It seemed that Button was being consigned to the list of “nearly” drivers. Little could anyone predict what would happen in the 2009 season, although once Button signed with the newly formed Brawn team experts believed that the car might be competitive, especially in the early stages of the season.
It is time to make a little confession on behalf as I hadn’t watched any of what I have just described. In fact, before 2009 I had only watched 1 F1 race in my life. Funnily enough, that race was the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix which just happened to be Button’s only win in F1. Truth be told, I hadn’t been attracted to it and given that it was shown on ITV, notoriously bad for sport coverage, I wasn’t likely to start anytime soon. When the BBC won the rights to it I thought I might give it a go. Three races into the season I was hooked and had already developed a love for Jenson Button. His charm, scruffy looks and smooth driving style had drawn me in. That affection for him has remained to this day, yet without the BBC wanting F1 back I would probably never have watched it. Given that it is now one of my favourite sports and I am an almost religious follower of it, I have a lot to thank the BBC for!
There were 20 drivers that took to the grid at Melbourne for the first race of the season, contesting in pairs of 2 for 10 teams – as usual. Brawn GP was the only constructor debutant on the grid with Sebastien Buemi, driving for Torro Rosso, being the only new driver. Due to a lot of new regulations about the cars, there were no early favourites for the title. In testing, Felipe Massa, Button and Barrichello had been fast; along with the BMW Sauber’s but the reigning champion Lewis Hamilton had been slow. Many drivers had commented that they had never seen McLaren produce such a bad car. All of this meant that the start of the season seemingly whetted more appetite across the world then had done previously.
Race 1: Australian Grand Prix 29th March:
The fastest driver during free practice was Nico Rosberg, which would start a season continuing trend of the Williams car being fast in practice but not so fast for the rest of the weekend. I believe somebody, possibly Jonathan Legard – lead BBC commentator, christened Rosberg “the Friday man” or something along those lines. As I’ve stated in an earlier Prime Memories, qualifying is split into three parts with the fastest ten cars being left to fight it out for pole position. The worries about Hamilton were confirmed when he could only manage to scrape into the second session, go no further and then get deducted 5 places for changing a gearbox. There were no such worries for his fellow Brit Button, as he qualified on pole – holding off challenges from Barrichello and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel. Button retained his pole position after the first corner of the race, where there was chaos behind which Barrichello got caught up in. Despite a slow stop and a safety car, Button managed to stay in front all race and, when Vettel and Robert Kubica crashed two laps from the end, finished the race as a winner. This was the first time since 1954 that a constructor had gained both pole position and victory in their debut race. It got better for Brawn as Barrichello recovered from the bad start to claim second place, taking advantage of Vettel’s error. That man, Vettel, helped by his team-mate Mark Webber, would become Button’s closest rivals over the course of the season however neither picked any points up for this race. Button was leading the championship with 10 points, Barrichello had 8.
Race 2: Malaysian Grand Prix 5th April:
The Malaysian Grand Prix of 2009 was remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it was only the fifth time in F1 history when full points couldn’t be awarded at the end of the race. The reason for this was torrential rain stopping the race in the 33rd lap, which was short of the 75% race completion needed for full points. Half points were awarded instead. The second remarkable fact was that it was only the second time, and only time since the very first 2 F1 races, that a constructor had won their first 2 Grand Prix’s. Once more, Button qualified on pole, this time with a time that was less than a hundredth of a second faster than his closest rival. He didn’t get off to the best of starts in the race, dropping back to fourth before finding his rhythm once more and clawing his way back into the lead, helped by the first round of pit-stops. By the time the rain came, he was still in the lead and claimed the maximum number of points for the win with it being the first time in his career than Button had won two races in a row. He was now on 15 points, with Barrichello (5th), Vettel (15th) and Webber (6th) on 10, 0 and 1.5 points respectively. At this point in time, Vettel didn’t look like a challenger with Jarno Trulli, Timo Glock and Nick Heidfeld starting the season well.
Race 4: Bahrain Grand Prix 26th April:
After the Red Bull team had announced themselves with a 1-2 victory in China the championship was a lot tighter, although Button had managed to climb onto the podium and so still had a 6 point lead. When the Championship headed to Bahrain, the Toyota’s looked strong, with Trulli and Glock securing their first front row lockout in F1. Vettel was third and Button fourth; however this had all changed by the completion of the first round of pit stops. Due to their lightly fuelled cars, the Toyota’s were both overtook by Button using the pit stop timings cleverly. Button stayed in the lead from then right until the end, cruising home from Vettel by 7 seconds in the end. Trulli managed to hold onto 3rd but there was disappointment for Glock who slipped down to 7th. For the first time, Button was clearly in front in the title race, opening up a 11 point gap over Barrichello and 12 over Vettel.
Races 5, 6 and 7: Spanish, Monaco and Turkish Grand Prix’s 10th, 24th May, 7th June:
I have clumped these races together because they all followed a similar pattern. That pattern was a strong qualifying lap from Button before a dominant race leading to yet another victory. The three wins in three races meant that Button had won 6 out of 7 of the first meetings of the season, an unprecedented achievement. All that potential in 2000 seemed to have been finally realised, with everyone noticing that if you gave Jenson Button a race winning car, chances are he would deliver. No longer was he just a good driver in changeable conditions, a master of judging a pit stop perfectly to change from wets to intermediate to slicks, he was a wonderfully smooth driver who conserved fuel and tyres better than anyone else. To talk about the three races in more detail, the only drama for Button in the Spanish Grand Prix was when Barrichello overtook him on the first corner. This was a short-lived lead as Button was on a different strategy that he put to better use and won by a clear 13 seconds. The Monaco and Turkish Grand Prix’s were both incredibly dominant drives by Button with him not looking at all challenged in the Monaco Grand Prix and once he overtook the pole sitter in Turkey, Vettel, he never looked back there either. Button had stormed ahead in the Drivers Championship too with 61 points; his nearest rival Barrichello had 35 while the two Red Bulls, Vettel and Webber had 29 and 27.5 points respectively. The point gaps between the 4 meant it seemed inevitable that Button would seal his first world title; surely nothing could stop him now?
Race 15: Japanese Grand Prix, 4th October:
By the time the F1 paddock flew into Japan, Button’s lead had been cut dramatically to only 15 points with 3 races remaining. The Brawn car had gone from being almost unbeatable to blowing hot and cold added to the fact that the perfect reliability had been ruined. Button’s string of results since Turkey had been: 6th, 5th, 7th, 7th, Ret, 2nd and 5th. The important point to note from those results was the fact that, aside from the retirement in Belgium, he had always picked up points even without the car being as good. Button had famously said, during the Hungary Grand Prix, on radio “How can this car be so bad at the moment?” While that was going on, Vettel and Barrichello were closing the gaps. Barrichello had won 2 races (Europe and Italy), Vettel had won 1 (Britain), Webber 1 (Germany) with Raikkonen and Hamilton finally making their marks on the season with victories in Belgium and Hungary. Button needed 5 points more than Barrichello to guarantee the title as if two people ended level on points, he would take the title courtesy of more victories. Japan wasn’t brilliant for Button, as he qualified 7th and finished 8th, only bagging himself one point and, with Vettel and Barichello both finishing, this didn’t go anywhere towards guaranteeing him the championship. The race was simply one which kept the title alive as Vettel gained 9 points from his win on Button and 8 on Barrichello, meaning he was well in with a shout of the title going ahead to Brazil and Abu Dhabi.
Race 16: Brazilian Grand Prix, 18th October:
Jenson Button needed 4 points over Barrichello to win the title heading into Interlagos. Nothing else mattered for him, especially not where Vettel was, although knowing the position of Barrichello was useful. Four points translates into fifth place and it was not looking good when qualifying went horribly wrong for Button, due to rain. Jenson Button had gone out in session 2, qualifying 14th. Barrichello took pole and Vettel, needing to finish first or second, 16th also got caught out in the rain. What followed was some of the most wonderful driving you could ever wish to see. As soon as the race started, Button managed to pull himself up to ninth – staying clear of potential midfield battles. Over the next few laps Button passed Grosjean and Nakajima to pull himself up to 7th and find himself behind F1 newcomer Kobayashi. The Japanese driver held him up for a while but on lap 24, Button found a way through a moved up to 6th, sealed with a whoop for joy on the radio. After a second pit-stop, Button over-took Buemi and moved into the coveted 5th place. The passes were stunning, made even remarkable by the fact they were against mostly rookie drivers who Button himself had admitted that they couldn’t be trusted. Button held on to finish the race in 5th place and secure the title! As he sang “We Are The Champions” on the radio, his many admirers around the world celebrated but, most of all, sighed in relief.
Vettel went on to claim victory in Abu Dhabi with Button third. Barichello had a poor end to the season, finishing 8th in Brazil and 4th in Abu Dhabi, meaning that he slipped to third place in the championship. Button finished with 95 points, Vettel with 84, Barrichello 77 and Webber 69.5. Given that Hamilton was fifth with 49, it was safe to say that Brawn and Red Bull dominated 2009. Brawn won the constructors championship and, as they were then bought by Mercedes, they have gone down in history as the only constructor to have a 100% record in the championship. Button left that franchise to go to McLaren however what he did in 2009 will be remembered by all who witnessed it. The season of 2009 was truly special: drama, intrigue, twists and turns almost up until the final race. After his rip-roaring start, Button was well and truly caught by the pack but he did enough to, using only one chassis all season, hold on and claim the title in dramatic fashion. All ten teams won points throughout the season, a stat which shows how diverse it became however there was only one star. This was Jenson Button’s year and he took full advantage of the situation he found himself in. The last word should go to the man himself, who said “If somebody wanted to make a movie about Formula 1, this is the perfect time to do it!”
Race of the season: There is really no competition here. Brazil wins this by a country mile because it had everything! Kubica and Hamilton came from 8th and 17th respectively to finish 2nd and 3rd and as a result, there were overtakes galore. Almost everyone at the back of the grid made up places, while Barrichello suffered a puncture which gave Webber a win. Pit lane fires, crashes and fights (Trulli squaring up to Adrian Sutil was hilarious) and then the crowning of a world champion. Re-watching the first lap makes you wonder just how Button stayed out of trouble! One of those sporting events you never forget (almost worthy of an article on its own!).
Broadcasting moment of the year: This also happened at the Brazilian Grand Prix and credit has to go to BBC for being in the right place at the right time. They wanted to get as close to Button as possible following his win and Jake Humphrey, Eddie Jordan and Coulthard found themselves in the Brawn garage, surrounded by fellow reporters, getting a very emotional interview off Jenson Button. He admitted to feeling stressed for months and almost being sick the previous day, it was a very open insight into what it takes to become a formula 1 world champion. BBC F1 was truly wonderful at moments like this, it did things that no other sports coverage could do – it genuinely brought the sport into your living room. Whereas Sky like to show their technology off, BBC use the human touch – which makes coverage and sport feel so much more real.