October 29th, 1998. That was the day I first heard of Jenson Button. It was the day that I received my copy of Motoring News. As usual around this time of year, the annual “Formula Ford Festival” had been held at Brands Hatch. Up until a few years ago this meeting was regarded as a major event, certainly the absolute highlight of the Formula Ford year, and the prestige of winning the event was high. Past winners had included eventual F1 drivers Geoff Lees, Derek Daly, Roberto Moreno, Tommy Byrne, Julian Bailey, Johnny Herbert, Roland Ratzenberger, Eddie Irvine, Vincenzo Sospiri, Jan Magnussen, and Mark Webber. The format of the event was both simple and entertaining, with a series of knock-out heats, two semi- finals, and then the all-important final – back in ’98, victory in this race was still big news on the club scene, and would more often than not lead to something bigger for the winning driver for the following year.
Usually I had heard of the winner beforehand, but this was not one of those occasions. The name “Jenson Button” was, at the same time, curiously different, and memorable. Having been massively successful in karting, this was his first season of racing cars, and the 18-year-old had already sown up the British Formula Ford Championship. He was driving a French Mygale Ford-Zetec, run by Haywood Racing, against a whole fleet of the cars that had been, more often than not, driven by past winners of the event, the Van Diemen.
Having won his heat, Button was beaten in his semi by the Australian driver, Markus Ambrose. But the young Frome lad was not to be outdone. In what was a thrilling final, the battle for the lead was between Button, Ambrose, and Daniel Wheldon – another British driver who would go on to fame as a double winner of the Indianapolis 500, but who was tragically killed in 2011. Having trailed both Ambrose and Wheldon at the start, he nipped past Daniel when he took a wide line at the McLaren Curve early on, then got past the Australian on the following lap. There ensued a thrilling battle for the lead between the three, and as the race drew towards its conclusion it was Ambrose who narrowly led. Then Ambrose left the door wide open at Surtees Bend, Button pounced, the pair touched wheels, and Ambrose was out. Wheldon didn’t give up the chase, but at the flag it was Jenson Button who had won the 1998 Formula Ford Festival. His name was made.
The following year he moved up to the British Formula Three championship. The engine to have in that formula at the time was a Mugen-Honda, whereas Jenson had a Renault engine, therefore was rather the odd-man-out, however, he went on to finish third in the championship.
Well, the rest, as they say, is history. After just two seasons of racing cars, Jenson was a fully-fledged F1 driver. Sir Frank Williams used words like “astounded” and “astonishing” to describe his new young driver after his debut in Melbourne in March 2000. After 300 Grand Prix, the compliments still come thick and fast, but a World Championship, and 15 Grand prix wins, can now be added to that. Perhaps even more precious is the fact that Jenson has become one of the most loved F1 drivers of all time.