Of Brawn’s brain and Button’s skill

Published : Apr 04, 2009 00:00 IST



In Melbourne last year Jenson Button suffered a crash. But this year, the day belonged to the British driver as he led his new Brawn GP to a 1-2 finish at Albert Park. By Richard Williams.

With the setting sun in his eyes, redemption on the horizon and a demolition derby taking place on the track behind him, Jenson Button put an end to 2½ years of unrelieved disappointment when he led the brand-new Brawn GP team to a one-two victory in an eventful and enthralling Australian Grand Prix. Finally given a car good enough to allow him to demonstrate his talent to the world, the 27-year-old British driver started the race from pole position and led from flag to flag.

Behind him, profiting from a series of accidents, indiscretions and disqualifications which removed several of the fancied runners as the race reached its climax, came his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello. In third place, to complete a day of British satisfaction, came Lewis Hamilton, beginning his defence of the World Championship with an unexpected six points.

This was Button’s 154th Grand Prix in a career that began nine years ago, but only his second win. Since that solitary success in Hungary in 2006, some observers have blamed his poor results on the playboy image fostered during his early years. They should have paid more attention to the maturity he showed in adversity during two seasons in which he accumulated an aggregate of nine points, one fewer than the 10 he acquired in a single swoop at Albert Park.

“The last two years have been very tough,” a euphoric Button said after the race. “I’ve worked bloody hard to be here and this is an amazing day, a very emotional day.”

While his team, then running under the Honda name, were spending two years stumbling from one humiliation to another, Button held his tongue. He never complained about his hopeless car, never whinged about the superior equipment enjoyed by his rivals, never behaved, in fact, like the average racing driver faced with a long losing streak. Instead he expressed an unfaltering confidence in both his own ability to compete at the very top level and the team’s long-term potential.

While Button was controlling the race at Albert Park from the front, Hamilton was putting in a drive that would otherwise have stolen the headlines. Relegated to 18th place on the grid by a faulty gearbox, the reigning champion drove a canny race. On a day when neither Ferrari managed to complete the distance, his six points jump-started his defence of the title.

But the day belonged to Button, Barrichello and their team. This time last year neither man finished the race in Melbourne. One crashed, the other was disqualified and the tone for the season had been set. Worse was to come just before Christmas, when Honda’s top management announced its decision to withdraw an annual £200m subsidy. In the absence of offers to take over the team, a management buy-out was cobbled together. Its front man was Ross Brawn, the strategic genius who guided Michael Schumacher to seven world titles, and the new car took his name. Button, who had been in line for a £27m pay-off from Honda, accepted a pay cut of around 70% in order to continue racing. The car did not turn a wheel until March 9.

The decision to use Mercedes engines was endorsed by the boss of Hamilton’s team, Ron Dennis, whose McLaren cars already use the German company’s power plants and who could have obstructed the deal. Other rivals offered various forms of support in the race to keep the team alive. Probably none of them suspected that Brawn-Mercedes and two reborn drivers would give them such a pasting as they took in Melbourne, with the possibility of more to come in the next race weekend in Malaysia (April 3-5).

By that time, or at least within this month, the Brawn name may have disappeared. Sir Richard Branson arrived in Melbourne in time for the qualifying sessions to announce an initial sponsorship deal. And having watched the race from the Brawn pits, he made it clear that he wants to see Button and Barrichello driving “the Virgin car”, as he is already calling it.

“Today was as high a day as I can remember,” Branson said. “I’m delighted that we got involved. Now they’re going to need more funding, and the name ‘Brawn’ is not selling any products. I don’t think we’d need to be the sole provider of funds but I think we could be the principal provider. With the Virgin razzmatazz and the team’s skills together, we could get the extra money that will be needed.”

Neither the drivers nor Brawn himself, nor their prospective benefactor, appeared to be concerned about the prospect of an appeal against the stewards’ decision to permit the use of the car’s radical diffuser, the device used to disperse under-car airflow. The new concept is also used by the cars of Williams and Toyota and the appeal, lodged by several rival teams, will be heard in Paris on April 14.

“The stewards have said it is legal,” Brawn said. “You have to see how these things go. Even if they decide there’s a different interpretation, I don’t think they’ll wipe out what went before because we’ve been told our car is legal.”

A precedent for the steamroller triumph of the two Brawn cars exists in the result of the 1954 French Grand Prix at Rheims, where the Mercedes-Benz team made their world championship debut and, having set the two fastest practice times through Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling, saw the same pair finish first and second. But that team of 55 years ago faced a comparatively meagre field. And, unlike the heroes of Melbourne, the opposition did not include their own history.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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