Button’s champion drive wins the drivers’ championship

For the fifth year in succession, the Formula 1 drivers’ title was settled at Brazil’s Interlagos circuit. And for the second year in a row, a fifth place finish was enough to secure the F1 drivers’ title for a British driver at the expense of a Brazilian.

For Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa in 2008, read Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello in 2009. Hamilton denied Massa last year with a dramatic pass on Timo Glock two corners from the chequered flag, whereas Button’s path to glory was more progressive as he picked off one opponent after another. Nonetheless, this was – for perhaps the first time since Turkey in early June – the drive of a champion by the 29-year old Button.

Perhaps it was not the lights-to-flag victory which Button would have preferred – a poor tyre choice in the lottery of Saturday’s monsoon-affected qualifying session put paid to that – but his drive through the field from 14th was, if anything, more impressive, containing four brave and exemplary passing moves.

In recent months, many – myself included – have criticised Button’s increasingly conservative approach to defending what had been, by early June, a commanding 26-point advantage. Some have noted that he has been consistently outqualified by Brawn teammate Barrichello over the second half of the season, or that in the nine races since Turkey he has only once managed higher than fifth place.

But the fact is that he will finish the 2009 season with more points than any other driver, and that is the only yardstick that matters. That he collected the vast majority of his points in the first half of the season (61 in the first seven races, as opposed to 28 in the last nine) is no more than a statistical footnote. Overall, both the consistency of his driving and the quality of his overtaking – I can think of at least ten significant passes this season – have been excellent. All the leading drivers have made errors during the season; Button has made probably the fewest.

Let’s be clear about this: Jenson Button is a deserving world champion. Neither the most outstanding nor the most dominant, but deserving nonetheless.

For sure, there have been plenty of occasions in F1’s history where the title has been won under dubious or arguably less deserving circumstances.

In 1976, James Hunt benefitted from Niki Lauda’s horrific, near-fatal crash and fire at the Nurburgring. Six years later, Keke Rosberg topped the drivers’ standings despite winning only one race (five others won two each). Last year Hamilton won fewer races (five) than runner-up Massa (six). And then there are the championships which have been won by virtue of one driver colliding with their nearest rival: Alain Prost in 1989, Ayrton Senna in 1990 and Michael Schumacher in 1994.

Were any of these winners undeserving champions? Of course not. Hunt was a brave, swashbuckling racer; Rosberg, like Button, quick and consistent; Hamilton is widely regarded as having outstanding natural speed and car control. And whatever one may think of the tactics employed by Prost (uncharacteristically), Senna and Schumacher (both entirely in character), those three drivers alone accounted for 183 grand prix victories and 14 drivers’ championships.

If Button had had a ropey start to the year but found a rich vein of form towards the end of the season, we would be praising him to the rafters. The fact that his season has been a mirror image of this makes no difference; in the early part of the season, when he held a decisive advantage, he maximised his opportunity beautifully with a series of smooth, error-free wins.

To level the accusation that Button was only as good as his car is to miss the point of Formula 1, where a driver’s machinery has always been a crucial part of the total package. Juan Manuel Fangio regularly had the benefit of the fastest car in the field for his five championships, not to mention the ability to commandeer a teammate’s car (as allowed by the rules at that time) when the need arose. Nigel Mansell was always among the very fastest of his era, but his 1992 title owed as much to a technologically superior Williams which was at times two seconds a lap faster than anyone else. Similarly, Damon Hill in 1996 and Jacques Villeneuve (both in a Williams) the following year.

All, however, are world champions, plain and simple. Some were better than others, but there is no asterisk against any of their title wins, and any philosophical debate about how much they deserved their titles is little more than the stuff of Friday night pub arguments.

Button himself summed it up nicely after the race.

“None of it matters, because I’m sat here as world champion and that is something you can never take away. I’ve had an up and down season, but I’ve come out on top and I’m world champion. I don’t need to say anything.”

Red Bull‘s Mark Webber – it is easily forgotten that he actually won yesterday’s race, only the second of his F1 career – agreed that Button deserves his world championship.

“JB is consistent. He was also blisteringly quick at the start of the year. A lot of other drivers, including us [Webber and teammate Sebastian Vettel] and Rubens [Barrichello] had a shopping list of excuses as to why we were not getting the results, but at the end of the day we were not – JB was.”

And even Barrichello, the 37 year old veteran of 17 F1 seasons, who had just seen his best – and probably last – hope of a world title disappear at his home event, was magnanimous in defeat.

“Jenson won it and deserved it but he won it in the first six or seven races. I fought really hard. I’m pleased for Jenson as a friend and as a great champion.”

If his peers and rivals are gracious enough to acknowledge Button as a deserving champion, then that’s good enough for me.

Make no mistake – Button may not have won the race yesterday, but it was unquestionably a drive worthy of a champion.

About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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