Next year marks my 15th year in being a Formula One fan, and while usually that’d be reason to celebrate, it will be a horribly bittersweet year for myself.
It will be the first year in my life that my favourite driver won’t be on the grid, the first year I’ll have no one I look for first on a results screen, the first year I’ll be nothing more than a neutral. 2017 sees McLaren promote young Stoffel Vandoorne in place of the ever popular Jenson Button, and having followed his career with a keen eye for all these years, it’ll be a weird feeling watching the first race in Melbourne next season without Frome’s finest on the grid.
Way back in 2002 JB was driving for the Renault team, before it’s rise to success, he was in his third season and was partnered by Jarno Trulli. While I enjoyed watching Michael Schumacher race, he was barely on the TV screens, only at the end when he took the chequered flag. The F2002 was an incredible piece of machinery, and he walked to the title that season.
With this in mind, I looked for British drivers to support, David Coulthard was thriving at McLaren as he had for six or seven years before. Eddie Irvine was in his swansong year in the sport with Jaguar. Alan McNish was driving for the new Toyota team, and Jenson was at Renault. Something drew me to Jenson, his driving style was smooth and he was young, and full of raw passion.
So from then on in I followed Jenson, and while 2002 and 2003 were somewhat mediocre, 2004 was a year I never saw coming as a Jenson fan.
Having moved to BAR in 2003, I followed but was starting to get frustrated by how many disappointing results he was having. His horror crash at Monaco being a scary moment, having lost it into the Nouvelle Chicane I remember seeing the car and being in shock. ‘How has he walked away from that?’ I remember thinking.
The frustrating thing was something I had to get used to as a Jenson fan, which has made the last six or seven years following him even sweeter, but more on that later.
2004 and Jenson was partnered by Takuma Sato, something of a cult hero in Formula One, and I’m not sure they imagined what was to come. Two podiums in Malaysia and Bahrain for JB before he went to Imola and showed just what he could do.
I’ll never forget being sat in front of the TV as Jenson put in a 1:19:753, over two tenths quicker than Schumacher in the almost bulletproof Ferrari F2004. I was jumping up and down, my first truly proud moment as an F1 fan. Unfortunately he couldn’t go on to win as the mercurial Schumacher took the win. However Sato retired from the race with an engine failure six laps from the end, and it was panic time as JB was nervously bringing the car home hoping to avoid the
same fate. He brought it home in second place, and his best result in Formula One to that date.
Ten podiums that year including second at Imola, Monaco, Hockenheim and China secured him third in the drivers standings that year, behind Schumacher and future team mate Rubens Barrichello in the Ferrari’s.
I was only a young kid at this time so I really wasn’t too interested in what happened off the track. As a kid of nine years old I just wanted to tune in as the parade lap started and watch a load of cars go as fast as they could. So all the politics and comments made off track went over my head. Having looked back at what people said about Jenson and his ‘playboy’ era as it’s become known, it’s all rather harsh.
He was a guy in his twenties who was risking his life week in week out, if he wanted to buy an apartment in Monaco and a Bugatti Veyron so what? You have to ponder if DC did the same thing would it be acting like a ‘playboy?’
But I was unaware of these comments and just enjoyed Jenson’s race craft. He was fantastic, especially in the rain, as we found out in 2006. The Hungarian Grand Prix is etched in my mind as one of my all time favourite races, we all know why.
JB qualified 14th, giving me no hope or expectation of what was to happen. In the changing conditions he made his way up the grid and only went and won it! I remember being beside myself, shouting at my TV and willing him on as he took the chequered flag. A truly magnificent moment for Jenson as he took his maiden win.
It appeared this was a mere flash in the pan though, as 2007 and 2008 saw Honda turn their attention to trying to promote an earth-friendly message, and that rather fetching earth design from 2007, which we no longer speak about. Two drab years for Jenson and it looked to be the end of his career in 2008 when Honda pulled out the sport at the eleventh hour.
I remember thinking it was all over, having just watched Lewis Hamilton take the title in his second year I remember being happy that a Brit had won the title, but upset that it wasn’t Jenson.
However Ross Brawn being the utter legend he is became the hero as he bought out Honda and formed his own team, Brawn GP, and employed Jenson and Rubens Barrichello to drive for him. I was glad he was back in the sport but had no clue as to the amount of success they’d have.
Five wins in the first six races, as well as a win at Monaco saw Jenson race into a lead at the top of the drivers standings. I was confident this was his year at last. After a stuttering European season in which he picked up points but not as many wins, it all came to Brazil, Jenson could seal the title with a decent result.
I was on the edge of my seat from the parade lap onwards, JB was down in 14th, again, and title rival Barrichello was on pole. In another scenario I’d have loved Rubens to win the title, but I’d been following Jenson for too long to see him lose it now.
Some great racing from the Brawn team mates saw Jenson in fifth coming towards the end of the race. All these years I’d watched him race, retire, not have the car to give him results, and now here he was about to win the title.
He crossed the line and it was great seeing him celebrate, his rendition of We Are The Champions was something else. Celebrating with his dad and finally being World Champion, it had been quite a journey from Australia 2002 to here.
A move to McLaren followed and I thought this’d be an ideal place for title number two, however it just never materialised for him. This move of course co-incided with the rise of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, and so JB just couldn’t get near the top, but he got one over on the young German on one torrential day in Montreal…
Canada 2011 was just, chaos. There’s no other words for it, and I’m going to try and condense JB’s race as much as I can. (takes breath)
JB started seventh, hit team mate Lewis Hamilton and the pitwall and brought out the safety car. He then received a drive through penalty for speeding under said safety car, coming out in 15th. The race was suspended on lap 26 due to immense rain.
Two hours passed, race gets back underway. Shortly after Button and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso collided at turn three, putting Alonso out and giving JB a puncture, he came out in 21st and last place. However in six laps he jumped up to 14th. A steady rise up the grid saw him in fourth as the race entered its final stages. He caught and overtook Mark Webber and Michael Schumacher and was second coming into the final lap.
Vettel went wide at turn six and almost span it in the changing conditions, handing victory to Jenson Button. What a race that was. I wasn’t sure if I actually saw what I saw, it was just one of those races you need to watch as an F1 fan.
After 2011 Jenson’s career never really hit the same heights, and after getting his and McLaren’s last win in Brazil 2012, he and McLaren have slowly dropped in to the midfield.
While this is unfortunate, it’s somewhat a good thing. As this means we’ve been able to back Jenson even longer, as had he won another title he’d have probably retired on his own accord, gone out with a bang so to speak.
So when it was announced that Stoffel will replace Jenson for 2017 I was sad to see him go, but knew it was inevitable and had come to peace with it a few months ago.
All I will say is Jenson Button has been a privilege to watch these last 14 seasons and I’m glad I grew up in an era where I got to watch him and will him on every race. He’ll always be my favourite driver, but now I’ll have to just simply enjoy the sport, not enjoying the heartache, joy, delirium these last few seasons have given me.
Thank you Jenson, from a young fan who’s had years of fun watching you race, and congratulations on a unique and stellar career.