Jenson Button’s career was a wild ride of ups and downs. Off track he progressed from a “young playboy” into a mature adult and a worthy world champion, with the only notable controversies being some contract disputes with Williams.
Let’s start with his career stats.
As one of F1’s most experienced drivers, Button had an array of strong teammates across his career. Not only did he race against 3 other world champions (Villeneuve, Hamilton and Alonso), but 8 of his teammates are now race winners. This wide range of experience and talent allows Button’s ranking to be firmly established.
The box plot suggests that Button is not quite on the same level as Hamilton, but is a step above of many other quality drivers he raced against. His interquartile range is also quite small, implying that he was very consistent year-to-year after a couple of early season struggles.
Now let’s break down his career into yearly performances:
It took Button a while to find his feet in F1, after debuting at just 20 years old (very young for the era). He subsequently suggested that he would have liked a couple of extra years in lower formula to prepare himself better. After 2001 he was a consistently strong performer, despite varying levels of car competitiveness. Interestingly, his world championship year is not considered to be one of his strongest. Instead, 2015 and 2011 are considered his peak performances, with 2003 and 2005 not far behind. As previously discussed, Button is not awarded a top performance for any season, but he was usually not too far off. The only significant dip in form came in 2008, where he was outscored by teammate Barrichello.
Wet Weather Performances
Button was considered a specialist at looking after his tyres and wet weather racing (particularly in damp conditions). Whilst the first is hard to quantify, it’s worth looking at how valid his reputation for wet weather driving is. Out of 15 race wins, 7 were from wet races. When the number of wet/dry races across his career is taken into account, Button was five times more likely to win a wet race than a dry one (16% chance vs 3% chance). This ratio is better than any other F1 driver, and by quite a distance too. (See here for some informative but slightly outdated statistics on wet weather driver specialists.) This remarkable stat is boosted somewhat by Button spending a considerable amount of his career in mediocre cars. Drivers such as Schumacher, Senna and Hamilton are also rightly considered wet weather specialists, but this is more hidden in the data due to the fact that they often won races anyway. Nevertheless, Button should be included in any debate on the greatest wet weather F1 drivers of all time.
2000, Williams-BMW: 62%
2001, Benetton-Renault: 62%
2002: Renault: 91%
Button was a surprise pick for the 2000 Williams drive, given his youth and experience. He lacked an F1 Superlicence when he was offered the job, with Button even telling Frank Williams that he was not ready for Formula 1 when he was asked. Whilst Button was easily outscored by Ralf Schumacher 24-12, he progressed as the season went on, matching his teammate in the season’s second half. As Williams had already signed Juan Pablo Montoya for 2001, Button found himself at Benetton for 2001, partnering Fisichella. He was again outscored, this time in a woefully uncompetitive car. Button later commented that he thought Fisichella was at his best in a bad car, something which the model generally agrees with.
Benetton rebranded as Renault for 2002 and Button found his form that the previous seasons had hinted at, out scoring teammate Trulli. Unfortunately, team boss Briatore had already signed Alonso for 2003, meaning Button was again forced to look elsewhere.
2003, BAR-Honda: 95%
2004, BAR-Honda: 87%
2005, BAR-Honda: 95%
2006, Honda: 93%
After being booted out of teams on upwards swings twice in his first 3 years, Jenson found a home at BAR. Whilst he had an acrimonious relationship with first BAR teammate Villeneuve (who was keen to label Button as immature), the Brit ultimately outpaced and outscored his world champion teammate, cementing a strong reputation after a mixed first few years in the sport. He also escaped battered but mostly unhurt from a high speed crash at Monaco. In 2004 Button took 10 podiums, and finished 3rd in the championship, but was unable to break his duck and land a victory.
The start of the 2005 season was a disaster, and Button was yet to score half-way through the season (this was partly due to a disqualification and 2 race ban for the team for hiding fuel in the car). The second half of the season was much improved, with 10 points finishes in a row including 2 podiums. During this period Button was the clear lead driver, easily outperforming Sato. In 2006 BAR became Honda, and Button had a stronger teammate in Rubens Barrichello. The two stayed together for 4 years, with a small edge to Button overall (particularly when the car was competitive). As in 2005, the results improved as the year progressed, with Button being the top scorer in the final third of the year. He was also finally achieved a victory, with a brilliant wet weather drive from 14th on the grid in Hungary.
Struggles at Honda
2007, Honda: 87%
2008, Honda: 64%
Hopes were high that Honda investment and previous progress would lead to a serious run in 2007. It proved to be another false dawn, as the Honda car was even slower than their B-team Super Aguri at the start of the season. Teammate Barrichello failed to score all year, whilst Button ended the season with just 6 points. The only other highlight was the first couple of laps of the European Grand Prix, where he rose from 17th on the grid to 4th in the race, before aquaplaning off at the start of the 3rd lap.
2008 was no better, and he was outscored by Barrichello 1-3 across the year. This is easily considered his worst year since 2001, and whilst some of this is attributed to Barrichello’s opportunistic podium in Britain, Button would have been outscored across the season even without this. Honda spent much of this period developing their 2009 car, when new regulations would hopefully propel the team forward. However, all the preparation seemed in vain when the parent company dramatically withdrew from the sport due to financial pressures, 3 months before the start of the 2009 season.
2009, Brawn-Mercedes: 84%
2010: McLaren-Mercedes: 92%
2011, McLaren-Mercedes: 97%
2012: McLaren-Mercedes: 94%
Honda’s last minute transformation into the championship winning Brawn GP has passed into F1 legend. Whilst Button was incredibly lucky to suddenly find himself in the best car on the grid in 2009, it’s fair to say that a bit of luck was probably overdue. He raced beautifully in the first half of the year, winning 6 races and establishing a large points. In the 2nd half of the year he did enough to secure the championship, but was actually only the 6th top scorer. This was partly due to championship pressure and lacklustre qualifying performances, but it’s fair that the team’s early edge also faded with time.
In 2010 he moved to McLaren to partner Lewis Hamilton. Many were convinced that it was a mistake, but he established himself early on by winning 2 of the first 4 races of the season (both of them in wet conditions). He generally couldn’t keep up with Hamilton’s 1 lap pace, but was often just as quick in the races. Button also tended to have an edge in damp conditions, which is all the more impressive considering that Hamilton is one of the greatest wet weather drivers ever.
He maintained a friendly rivalry with Hamilton during their 3 years together, with several on track battles (e.g. Turkey 2010, China 2011, Hungary 2011, Brazil 2012). His 2011 season was particularly impressive, winning three races, out scoring a sometimes off-form Hamilton and regularly being a thorn in the side of an otherwise dominant Sebastian Vettel. His victory in Canada is considered to be one of the greatest comebacks ever, as he was running dead last at 2/3rds distance. McLaren were less consistent in 2012, but Button still won races, including McLaren’s last victory until Danial Ricciardo’s recent triumph in Monza.
2013: McLaren-Mercedes: 91%
2014: McLaren-Mercedes: 87%
2015: McLaren-Honda: 100%
2016: McLaren-Honda: 90%
Whilst McLaren’s dramatic tumble down the order is often attributed to Honda or the hybrid era in general, it began before both of these in 2013. However, the evidence suggests that Button was still performing strongly. He partnered with Pérez in 2013 and Magnussen in 2014, fairly comfortably beating both. Across 2015-2016 he was reunited with Honda power and teammates with Fernando Alonso. He held his own against the double world champion in another stint of uncompetitive cars.
There were few highlights during this period, with some of the most memorable moments being the ludicrous level of grid penalties they endured. Whilst Alonso is remembered for his criticism of the engine and radio outbursts, Button mostly kept quiet, reflecting a mature personality that had already seen the highs and lows and formula one. Finally, 2017 he made a brief cameo at Monaco. This should have been one of their most competitive tracks, but another grid penalty saw him relegated to the back of the grid, and he crashed out in a rather clumsy overtake attempt.
Overall, Button was in a class of one in damp conditions, making instinctive calls for slicks at several points in his career. He also excelled at keeping life in tyres (something which on paper is contradictory to his ability to keep heat in slick tyres on a wet track). He also rarely crashed and was very consistent across his career. However, he was more sensitive to car handling than most.