Jenson Button started his racing career as an eight year old, racing cadet karts at his local kart circuit. He took three years to win the British Cadet championship as Dan Wheldon won the first four Cadet Kart championships held in Britain. When Wheldon moved up, Button had his chance and won the next two years, winning all 34 races of the 1991 championship. As a junior driver at the age of twelve Button continued winning, becoming the British Junior TKM Champion in 1992. The following year he won the more powerful British Open championship. For 1994 he raced in the European and Italian championships for the first time, winning races in both before winning the Senior Italian ICA championship in 1995 and becoming the youngest ever runner up in the Formula A World championship. 1996 was less successful, fifth in the European Formula A championship, third in the American championship (Charlotte) and third place in the World Cup (Suzuka). For his final year of karting in 1997 he started by coming second in the Formula A winter cup, won the European Super A championship (becoming the youngest ever winner) and won the Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup at Suzuka.
For 1998 he moved into Formula Ford at what seems now to be an elderly eighteen years of age. He won not only the British championship but the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and was runner up in the European Formula Ford championship. Thanks to this he won the McLaren Autosport BRDC young driver award for 1998, which included a test drive of a McLaren F1 car.
In 1999 he moved to Formula 3, coming fifth in the Masters (Zandvoort), second at Macau, second in the F3 Korea Super Prix and third in the British F3 championship, winning three races and being the top rookie. Despite only being third in British F3 behind Marc Hynes and Luciano Burti, there was sufficient hype behind Button that he tested F1 for three different teams: McLaren (as part of his 1998 young driver title prize); Prost; and Williams (in a shoot-out for the seat vacated by Alex Zanardi). In the Williams test Button was pitted against the F3000 racer Bruno Junqueria, yet despite only two years of car racing Button was given the drive.
So Button arrived in F1 with very limited car racing experience and a lot of hype. However he managed an impressive first season and scored 12 points (at a time when points only went down to sixth place), which was enough to finish the year in eighth place. For the following year he joined Benetton and this started the worst period of his racing career. He appeared to change teams for money and not performance, he moved to Monaco and started buying supercars. The result was only two points and 17th place in the championship in 2001, and despite improving to seventh place in 2002 and 14 points for the rebranded Renault team he was branded a lazy playboy by Flavio Briatore and lost his drive at the end of the year, replaced by the team’s test driver (Fernando Alonso).
The bad times continued into the following years, with Button joining BAR, much to the disgust of his new team mate Jacques Villeneuve who didn’t rate his driving ability. By the end of the season though it was the 1997 champion who was leaving the team after finishing seven places behind Button in the driver’s standing. 2004 and 2005 saw some very odd career decisions from Button’s management. In August 2004 signed a contract to Join Williams for 2005 and 2006, despite this being his most successful season to date (was he following the money again?), BAR however argued that they had a valid option to keep Button for 2005. In October the Formula One Contract Recognition Board found in favour of BAR, so he stayed at the team. Button then fired his manager (John Byfield) stating that he had been badly advised. The contract dispute reared its head again in 2005, with this time Williams stating they had a valid contract with Button, but the driver preferring now to stay with his existing team (which would become the works Honda team in 2006). Williams agreed to release Button from his contract for £18 million.
Honda buying the team should have been the end of the bad years for Button, and he even managed his first win in Hungary 2006 after 112 winless races. However the Honda years were not successful and the manufacturer withdrew suddenly at the end of a particularly uncompetitive 2008 season. One of the reasons for the poor results in 2008 was the team had switched all the effort to the following years car early in the season (this being particularly important due to the significant changes in the technical regulations made for the 2009 season).
With the loss of the Super Aguri team early in 2008, F1 couldn’t afford to lose another team as it would leave only nine teams on the grid. McLaren agreed that it would allow Mercedes to supply its engines to another team, and Ross Brawn bought the team from Honda for a nominal fee, the FIA even waved the entry fee, and both drivers took a substantial pay cut. Honda had announced they were pulling out in early December 2008, but it wasn’t until March 2009 that the deal with Brawn was completed and the FIA agreed to their entry in the championship. As a result the team only managed to run the car in the final pre-season test at Jerez. The team ran for three days, and Button ended up fastest on the third day. As the car ran in a plain white livery with no sponsors, the suspicion was that it was running underweight in order to attract some sponsorship.
Much has been said about Button only winning the championship thanks to the double diffuser used by the Brawn team, but it must be remembered that both Williams and Toyota had also spotted the loophole in the rules and designed their cars with this feature from the outset. Certainly the Brawn was faster than the other cars, but Barrichello is no slouch, and Button was able to dominate his team mate wining six of the first seven races (even the Chinese GP where he finished third he was only beaten by the Red Bulls) before defending his championship lead for the final ten races.
While the championship winning season in 2009 may be his most successful season arguably his best period was when he chose to go to McLaren to be team mate to the driver regarded at the time to be the fastest (certainly over a single lap). For three years as team mate to Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button compares remarkably well.
Since 2012, McLaren have struggled with an uncompetitive car, but there are still occasions when the most experienced driver in F1 can still show why he is still there. He has certainly lost the playboy tag that Flavio Briatore gave him, even if there are still some who doubt is credentials as a true world champion.