In the context of assessing Jenson Button’s decline in performance over the second half of the 2009 Formula 1 season, team head Ross Brawn recntly offered a comparison between Button and seven-time world champ Michael Schumacher, with whom Brawn worked for nearly 15 years, both at Benetton and Ferrari.
In a recent an interview with The Guradian, Brawn highlighted two key differences between the drivers which seem to separate the great from the merely good.
First, there is a quality shared by all great drivers, namely the ability to be better than the car. Said Brawn of Schumacher, “Michael had a raw ability which sometimes almost got in the way of sorting the car out. He could cope with certain imbalances on the car which then could show themselves in the race because the tyres wouldn’t last or other issues would come up. He liked to chuck the car around and his pure ability would sometimes mask what you were trying to uncover on the car.”
In other words, Schumacher’s abilty to drive around the car’s handling problems was so exceptional, that often the problems wouldn’t fully reveal themselves until race day, after the tires deteriorated. It was also true of Schumacher that he typically appeared much stronger than his team mates when the car was a real dog. As the car improved, so did the second driver’s performance. This was clearly the case with both former Schumacher team mates at Ferrari, Eddie Irvine and Rubens Barrichello.
Button, on the other hand, is a driver who is more limited in his ability to adjust his driving style to suit the weaknesses of the car. He doesn’t have a natural work-around approach. Said Brawn, “Jenson is a very consistent racing driver…But he’s more specific in what he wants and he doesn’t mask a problem in the car. If there is one, he can’t drive around it. You have to get the car sorted out – and when you do get it sorted out, he’s incredibly quick.”
Brawn says that Button has improved in his ability to be more flexible in this respect, but it’s not really in his nature to do so. It has often been remarked that Button’s natural driving style is smooth to the point of looking effortless, like Alain Prost’s. Schumacher, on the other hand, typically had the car dancing on a knife’s edge. If you compared telemetry between the two, Button’s corrections within a single turn would be revealed as a smooth curve on the printout, whereas Schumacher’s would have more of a saw-tooth pattern.
The second attribute Brawn mentioned was the fighter’s instinct, or raw aggression. Great drivers are always competitive, but some have been more gentlemanly than others. Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost were never known for having a take-no-prisoners attitude on the track. Yet they were all great champions. Senna and Schumacher were in a different league, however. Senna’s standard method of blocking was simply to aim his car directly at the car of whoever was trying to pass him. If the other driver failed to back down, the incident ended in tears. Schumacher came through the ranks idolizing Senna, and he famously emulated some of the great Brazilian’s driving tactics.
How does Button rank on the road warrior scale? According to Brawn, “He’s aggressive when he needs to be, but he’s not a hooligan…He’s not the sort of guy to go charging up the inside with all the wheels locked. And equally he’s very good at accepting pressure when someone’s climbing all over him. His track craft is very good. He knows where he’s got to hold the line and look after things. And he doesn’t get overtaken very often, particularly now he’s got a good car. He’s a thinking driver with a good analytical brain and he pays a lot of attention to strategy and to what’s needed. He’s very complete.”
In other words, Button is generally regarded as competent, but no one would ever call him “The Intimidator,” a la Dale Ernhardt. While no one would suggest that Button adopt a NASCAR drving style (which, after all, would require a complete roll cage and steel fenders), one wonders if Button’s performance might have been more consistent in the second half of 2009 if he had simply displayed more raw aggression.
In the end, it’s a moot point. Jenson Button has his own character, and his own style, and as Ross Brawn said, “If he gets this championship, he’s done it his way and you can’t criticise him.”
Image by gabif1fan, licensed through Creative Commons.