Does Jenson Button deserve the Formula 1 World Champion’s title? In purely statistical terms, the fellow who racks up the most points deserves the title, so the short answer to the question is yes. Button did what he needed to do, and had luck when he needed it, while his rivals, for one reason or another, either didn’t get the job done, or simply had a shortage in the luck department.
However, the mere fact that people have been asking question shows that there has been a certain level of doubt about the manner in which Button has managed his season. If you look at the numbers, Button’s season has been somewhat unique. It has, in fact, been more like two separate seasons. In the first, he was utterly dominant, reminiscent of fellow Brit Nigel Mansell in his title winning season, in 1992. Button won six races out of seven. He appeared to be teflon coated. Note the figures below, for total points from the Australian through the Turkish Grands Prix, for the top four drivers. Button has a huge gap over his rivals.
But after Turkey, something happened. From the British through the Brazilian Grands Prix, Button appeared to be a different driver – or the same driver in a different car. Looking again at the top four drivers in the standings, Button comes in a weak fourth. Meanwhile, German wunderkind Sebastian Vettel heads the list. In other words, if the season were sliced roughly down the middle, Vettel would be the champ of part two.
But a title is won by a driver’s performance over an entire year, and not just for a portion of it. That’s why points are tallied. In 1982, Keke Rosberg clinched the title having won only a single race. Compared to that standard, Button has performed like a hero in 2009. It was Rosberg’s average performance throughout the year that gave him the edge over his rivals. And ultimately, statistics are about averagaes.
Nevertheless, Button’s sudden drop in performance raises certain questions. Was it down to the driver, the car, or both? According to Ross Brawn, it was both. Brawn has suggested that Button became more conservative in his driving style in the latter half of the season, particularly in qualifying. Once a driver realizes a potential title is at stake, he is apt to become more cautious approaching the absoulute limit. Button had never been in that position before.
Then, there’s the technical issue. Ross Brawn revealed earlier in the year that some of the developments in the car seemed to go in the wrong direction. Fair enough. Yet, the best way to judge a driver’s performance is to compare him to his team mate, who presumably has identical equipment. The points comparison above shows that, no matter what was wrong with the car, Button’s team mate, Barrichello, was better able to cope than Button was.
One of Button’s limitations, which I think separates him from the very first rank of drivers, is his inability to rise above the limitations of his car. Certain drivers are able to flatter substandard equipment. Names like Senna and Schumacher come to mind in this respect, as do former non-champions Sterling Moss and Gilles Villeneuve. Among the men currently on the grid, Fernando Alonso has this reputation. But Jenson Button does not. Ross Brawn has admitted that, if the car is set up to Button’s liking, he’s remarkably quick; but if the setup isn’t working, Button can’t drive around it.
Specifically, Button doesn’t cope well with oversteer, whereas Barrichello can. The king of oversteer was Michael Schumacher. He was known to like a nervous setup, and it was often said that he drove an F1 car as if it were a kart. And Schumcher once drove an entire race in 5th gear, and finished second. He was able to alter his driving style enough to cope. I think that kind of performance is beyond Button.
In the final analysis, one has to say that, yes, Jenson Button earned his title, and he is certainly the equal or better of certain other drivers who have been so honored in recent years (Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve come to mind). That said, I don’t think he’ll ever be mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Clark, Senna and Schumacher. But why should he be? The fact is, not all great drivers become champions (think Sterling Moss again), and not all champions are truly great drivers, to the extent that they become the benchmarks for their generation.
Image by Jane Belinda Smith, licensed through Creative Commons.