“Been looking at the odds,” said a mate ahead of the new Formula One season, “and I reckon Jenson Button is a great shout
It was a common sentiment, and it was certainly worth a gander with Button a 7/1 outsider for the title. He had been quick in pre-season testing - quicker than anyone - and seemed to have a number of factors on his side. Even McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh had admitted that the 2011 MP4-26 was “neither reliable nor quick”, yet a new season and a new car had brought fresh optimism.
Moreover, Button looked better able to take advantage of that than his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, after a second-placed finish in 2011. While Hamilton was busy complaining that he couldn’t be expected to beat Sebastian Vettel when there was such a disparity in their equipment, Button just seemed to get on with the job.
That was a reflection not just of their attitudes and driving styles but of their differing levels of maturity. Where Hamilton seems capable of the sublime but also the ridiculous, characteristics of an often impetuous youth, Button is as solid as they get - the type of chap you ask the be your child’s godfather because you know he’ll always remember their birthday. He had his poster-boy party days, and now he’s settled down to apply himself as best he can.
Those seemed like good attributes heading into a season that had the potential to be quite open, with six former World Champions in the mix. Plus it was widely acknowledged that Button looked a better driver in losing to Vettel last season than he did when winning the Championship in 2009.
That 7/1 looked like an opportunity lost when Button was quicker to the first corner of the Australian Grand Prix than Hamilton and went on to win. And consistency looked like it could be the name of the game, at least in theory, after the first seven races of the season were won by seven different drivers. The problem was that Button was anything but consistent.
Now his title prospects are shot - or at least they look that way to everyone except Button himself. A sixth-placed finish in Hungary left him 88 points adrift of Championship leader Fernando Alonso, whose key to the season has been scoring in every grand prix - not that three victories haven’t helped.
What’s more, Alonso’s campaign has gathered pace as the season has gone on, and his 40-point gap will be difficult to bridge. If there’s one driver who can rein him in though, it’s surely Hamilton with his maverick tendencies. The Englishman was miles ahead of everyone else in Hungary, and looks to have the car and the talent to produce something special.
It’s therefore time for Button to accept that his hopes of a second Championship are over for the season and get behind his team-mate. Twice during the break he’s been quoted as saying that he believes he can still overcome the 88-point canyon between himself and Alonso, suggesting that it’s more than just typically positive media speak.
“If I am leading a race, then I want to win that race,” he said after the Hungarian Grand Prix. “That’s what drivers do. We don’t have a No1 and a No2 driver here. I will not be asked to do anything but if there comes a time in this championship when I can’t win, then I will obviously help my team-mate.”
Someone needs to have a quiet word with him, because that time has clearly come. Nobody expects him to become the F1 equivalent of a cycling domestique, or to start doing Hamilton’s laundry. Rather what needs to be recognised is that the McLaren team should play to Hamilton’s strengths, and one of his greatest strengths is his hefty ego.
A bit like Kevin Pietersen,to operate at peak levels, Hamilton thrives from a feeling that he’s a bit more special than everyone else. He needs to feel like he’s the main man, and nothing would feed that notion more than Button publicly declaring his support to his Teammate for the remainder of the season.