Murray Walker, God bless him, used to say that F1 was “if” backwards. He also observed that “anything can happen in F1, and it usually does”. But even he would have had trouble putting into words the events that unfolded during the opening grand prix of 2009 in Australia.
Jenson Button — the British driver who isn’t Lewis Hamilton, the one with only one victory to his name after 154 races, and the one pub experts had written off as a lost cause — led his new Brawn GP team to a blistering 1-2 victory. It was the first win for a team on its debut outing since the Austro-Canadian oil baron Walter Wolf and his squad took the honours in Argentina in 1977.
Victory was especially sweet for Button. I’ve known him since 2000, when he arrived in F1 with the Williams team as a fresh-faced 20-year-old. Since then, he has endured more highs and lows than most professional sports stars, growing up in public and making mistakes. Imagine the temptations that must come to a multi-millionaire racing driver in his early twenties . . .
More significantly, he rarely found himself in the right car at the right time, something great racing drivers have a habit of doing. I spent a day with him at the Nürburgring in September 2007, and while the world was Hamilton-crazy, Button was doing the best he could and working hard towards 2008. Both his self-belief and his loyalty to the Honda team were rock solid, and he never complained, even when 2008 started to fall apart.
He has had to wait longer than he thought for his big chance, but now it has come, and boy does he deserve it — he’ll be absolutely stellar this year. Unless you’re up to speed with the sport’s labyrinthine technical rules and the often bitter politicking that accompanies them, Button’s sudden elevation from zero to hero could seem utterly baffling. Although his return to form was a little surprising, it wasn’t completely unexpected, so why were the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and BMW left flailing pathetically in Brawn GP’s wake, despite spending the guts of £800m between them?
It could be to do with this season’s rule changes — the most comprehensive since 1998. For 2009, the cars’ carbon-fibre bodies are of simpler design, shorn of the myriad aerodynamic flaps, winglets and other little devices that until now have sullied the purity of the cars’ shape. Yes, they helped to hustle air over the body to glue the car down to the track, but the emphasis has been shifted from head-spinning aerodynamic downforce to the purer concept of mechanical grip, further underlined by a return to slick tyres. This should make overtaking easier, and refocus the sport onto the ability of the guy behind the wheel to drive the bloody wheels off his racing car.
Button’s boss, the affable technical and strategic genius Ross Brawn, took full advantage. Last year’s Honda was such a donkey that fixing it was beyond even Brawn’s capability. So when he and his team began work on the 2009 car, they chose to capitalise on the rule changes to gain a head start. What they didn’t figure on was Honda baling out of F1 due to a collapse in car sales in the midst of a global economic downturn.
Honourably, Honda has helped to keep the wheels turning by supporting the 11th-hour transition into Brawn GP. The fact remains that while McLaren and Ferrari will no doubt regroup and recover in time to give Button a run for his money as the season progresses, it is Honda, and in particular the company’s president Takeo Fukui, a massive motor-sport fan, who will be wishing it still had its finger on the Button.