In Formula One motor racing, timing is everything. A tenth of a second in qualifying means pole position, while half-a-second?s delay at a pit stop can cost a victory. The drivers accept these challenges and do their best to rise to them
That is the challenge for competitors.?But there are aspects of timing a driver can do nothing about, such as what period his career falls in and who his rivals are. A driver in the late 1980s had to beat Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell, but in the mid-1990s Michael Schumacher?s only serious competition was Damon Hill.
And thus many observers regard so it is that the nation feels that Jenson Button, who is without a win in 104 grands prix, is proving as a disappointment, when the reality is that he is easily the most talented British driver since world champion Mansell. Had he been around in the mid-1990s he would have won a dozen races by now. However,
his career has overlapped with Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, three of the most talented drivers since Senna.
The struggles of Schumacher, seven times a world champion, over the past 18 months are a perfect illustration of the fact that a driver is only as good as his car. He recently offered Button some consolation. ?Michael says we are similar in talent with little differences and a lot of it is down to the team,? says Button. But soothing words are no substitute for the success that Button craves.
The pressure is mounting for him and his Honda team. After 10 podium places in 2004, he expected wins last year but the car was not fast enough. This year Honda increased the budget dramatically but victory is still eluding them. is not happening for them on the track. Why is this?
One reason is that Honda?s car is the best class of the field in qualifying but it falls off the pace in the race. Put simply, it extracts the maximum performance from the tyres over a single lap but cannot maintain it for a 20-lap stint. Alonso?s Renault is able to do both and is thus the car to beat.
The Honda team have also made mistakes ? such as the pit-stop incident at Imola when Button was signalled to drive off with the fuel line still attached ? that have cost a possible podium place.
Button and Honda are working hard behind the scenes, putting in the testing miles, and on Sunday in the European Grand Prix at
Germany?s Nurburgring, we will see if they are any closer to Renault.
Gil de Ferran, Honda?s sporting director, puts Button?s struggle into perspective. ?F1 is a very difficult sport because it relies on a combination of car and driver. Drivers alone cannot win with a poor car, they are an important part of the puzzle but not everything. Jenson?s time will come. The worst thing he can do is worry about it. He needs to just do what he does. He has all the raw materials to be incredibly successful. If he continues what he is doing now, he will be.?
De Ferran?s testimony is strengthened made all the more enlightening by the fact that he enjoyed a long driving career, where success came only in the later stages; he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2003 and then retired. Furthermore, he joined the Honda team after Button, so played no part in hiring him, but believes the Englishman is a unique talent,
?People tend to like a driver who is always correcting slides, looking like he is on edge,? he says. ?As an ex-driver I can tell you that it is much more difficult to do what Jenson does.
?Jenson is one of the fastest drivers out there, if not the fastest. Yet he makes it look like he?s driving around the block and that?s very special. I would put him up there with Schumacher, Alonso and Raikkonen. I have had the opportunity to see from the inside what he does, looking at the data, which the public does not see.
?He has incredible feel. If there is this much grip [De Ferran draws an imaginary line on the table] then Jenson will find it. He doesn?t go part of the way there, then past it then back to the limit. He goes straight to the limit. He feels it and builds on that very quickly. It shows up in a test session, first lap, bang he is straight on the pace.?
Button?s struggle to get results to match his talent has a precedent. Double world champion Mika Hakkinen competed in 96 grands prix before he won. Button still has time on his side, being just 26. and has a long contract with Honda, a team with a tradition of F1 success.?
?To win, everything has to come together at the same time,? says De Ferran. ?You need the best car and the best engine; you need to have a perfect weekend; the qualifying and the race need to be right; your pit stops need to be right and the driver has to be perfect. There is little room for error if you want to win consistently. It takes time and preparation to get all these factors together at the same time.
?We are very close, the car is competitive, we just need to improve a little bit. But of course the other teams are not standing still, so we need to improve faster than the others. We don?t lack the resources to do that.?
Monaco and Canada are two circuits coming up on the calendar at which Button is likely to shine. If he can ignore the pressure, that first win may be just around the corner.