As journalists, we’re not supposed to have favourite teams or drivers – and if we do, we’re certainly not meant to very open about it. But I challenge anyone to have their introduction to Formula One at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix, and not emerge with a considerable soft spot for Jenson Button.
Growing up in Somerset in the early 2000s, it was impossible not to have at least some awareness of who Jenson Button was. His success and charm had long earned him a place alongside the likes of Michael Eavis and Banksy in modern West Country folklore. But beyond the local pride, I didn’t know much about Jenson then – for whatever reason, my parents’ passing interest in F1 had not managed to impress itself on me, and so I was wholly ignorant of his stellar debut at Williams, his first win in Hungary, or his fairytale 2009 championship.
But all that changed on 12th June, 2011. My sister, an ardent Red Bull Racing fan, had come home from university that weekend to watch a certain Canadian Grand Prix, and in the spirit of family togetherness I sat down to join her. I had no idea I was about to watch the longest and one of the greatest races in F1 history, nor could I have guessed the impact that afternoon was to have on my life since then. All I wanted was a good show.
For all that was to come, Button’s 2011 Canadian Grand Prix got off to a terrible start. Unable to challenge the Red Bulls and Ferraris in qualifying, he lined up only seventh on the grid; then, after losing several places on the rain-soaked opening laps, almost saw his race end in a cloud of carbon fibre as a misjudged move by Hamilton on lap eight ended in the two McLarens colliding on the pit straight.
Button luckily came out unscathed, but the incident turned out to just be the beginning of his troubles. As the safety car was deployed, McLaren called Button into the pits to try a set of intermediates, but his chances of making the alternative strategy work were seemingly scuppered when he was given a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the safety car.
Rejoining the track down in fifteenth, Button then found himself on the wrong tyres as a rain storm descended on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, forcing him and the other inter-shod drivers back to the pits for more full wets. Then to make matters worse, after losing several places with his third trip through the pitlane Button was unable to use the better grip of his wet tyres to recover when the torrential rain triggered first another safety car, then a full race suspension on lap 25.
As the red flags came out, and as the horrendous weather made a restart look increasingly unlikely, it’s not hard to imagine Button hoping that that would be it for the day. For myself at home, I was thoroughly enjoying my first incident-packed experience of Formula One; but for Button, the first half of the Canadian Grand Prix had been an utterly dismal affair – his only consolation was that with a flurry of late stops for wet tyres mixing up the field, Button had managed to find himself in tenth place when the race was neutralised, just three places behind his original starting spot.
When the race finally did resume some two hours later, things picked up where they left off for Jenson – with another trip to the pits on lap 36 as the track dried out enough for intermediates again. But that fourth stop was far from his last, as a move on Alonso for tenth place ended in contact, beaching the Ferrari at Turn 3, puncturing Button’s right front tyre, and beginning the fifth safety car period of the day.
Had the race ended then, I might have been forgiven for not thinking much of Jenson’s performance. But as he left the pits for the fifth time and rejoined at the very back of the field, something seemed to change in the cockpit of that McLaren – with fresh tyres and in the changeable conditions he so loves, Button’s race came alive, and in less than ten laps after the safety period ended, he had already managed to slice back through the field to tenth.
From then on, Button simply could not be stopped. As his rivals struggled to manage slicks on a still-drying track, Button kept cool and sailed past them all in turn, and with fifteen laps to go was running fourth – and much faster than race leader Vettel.
A sixth and final safety car on lap 57, deployed after Heidfeld hit the back of Kobayashi through Turn 2, brought Button right up to the back of the leaders. He then exploited the neutralisation to perfection, passing both Webber and Schumacher shortly after the restart to give himself five laps in which to reel in Sebastian Vettel.
What followed next has since become F1 legend. Having led every lap so far, Vettel continued to keep Button just outside the DRS range and looked set to cling on until the flag; but with the McLaren punching out fastest lap after fastest lap behind him the pressure finally became too much, and halfway through the final lap, Vettel ran wide and let Button through for the win.
In my years of watching Formula One since, it’s hard to recall a battle for the lead in which I’ve felt so personally invested as Button’s unbelievable pursuit of Vettel. Perhaps it was just plain old sibling rivalry: as my sister’s favoured Vettel clung to an ever-decreasing lead, it’s only natural I should cheer on the man hunting him down.
But to leave it at that would be to do a gross disservice to Jenson Button. Put in its simplest terms, his drive to the victory in Montreal that day was nothing less than that of a true champion. From the back of the grid to the top of the podium is a phenomenal achievement under any circumstances, but Jenson’s win was made all the more outstanding by the constant adversity, the perilous conditions, and the supreme class of the field he had had to overcome along the way. Watching him command his way to the result he knew he deserved was like watching something elemental, determination incarnate.
Very few drivers would have had either the talent or the heart to do what he did in Montreal on 12th June, 2011 – for Jenson Button was, on that day at least, the very best there was.