With over 280 Grand Prix starts behind him, Jenson Button is out on his own as F1 racing’s most experienced driver, and yet the 2009 world champion and multiple race winner retains the same speed and enthusiasm that marked him out as one to watch in 2000 when he burst onto the scene as a precociously talented 20-year-old.
Like many of his contemporaries, success came early for the Frome-born racer. As an eight year-old he had triumphed in his first karting race, despite starting from the back of the grid in wet conditions. Crowned the British Cadet kart champion aged 10, he took the same series with even greater ease the following year after winning all 34 races.
Quickly outgrowing his home competition, a string of international karting titles followed. Button became the youngest winner of the European Super A championship and the youngest runner-up in the Formula A world championship. He completed his karting career with victory in the 1997 Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup at Suzuka, before making the inevitable move to single-seaters.
In 1998 he won the highly competitive British Formula Ford championship at his first attempt with nine wins for Haywood Racing. He also took victory in the Formula Ford Festival, finished second in the European championship and landed the prestigious McLaren/Autosport Young Driver of the Year Award. So rapid was his career progress that Button already seemed like a big fish in a small pond and he promptly moved up to British Formula Three for 1999.
Claiming three victories, seven podiums and third overall in his debut season, Button fully deserved his ‘Rookie of the Year’ honour and it wasn’t long before his successes were rewarded with a Formula One test. First for McLaren and then for Prost, Button wowed with his pace and ability, before Williams offered him a race drive for 2000.
Williams’ decision to sign Button - at 20, Great Britain’s youngest ever Grand Prix driver - resulted in unparalleled hype and expectation, but the scrutiny didn’t affect their new star’s performance. Indeed, a point in his second race, third on the grid at Spa and eighth in the championship meant the young Briton’s reputation as a smooth and unflappable driver remained firmly intact, even if he did score less than half the points of team mate Ralf Schumacher.
In spite of his apparent success, Button was farmed out by Williams to Benetton for the next two years. The time proved largely frustrating. His 2001 performances were hampered by a difficult car, while in 2002 he struggled to match team mate Jarno Trulli in qualifying and was left disappointed by a run of bad luck in races. He was replaced by Fernando Alonso for 2003, but would show his mettle once more following a move to BAR.
Button’s mature performances that year helped see the future Honda squad through a difficult season and he overshadowed veteran team mate Jacques Villeneuve in the process. The next year Villeneuve was replaced by Takuma Sato and, as such, Button became the team’s number one. With the Honda-BAR partnership at last finding its feet, he scored 10 podiums and finished an impressive third in the drivers’ championship, despite not winning a single race. The only sour note was the long-running dispute over who had the future rights to his services. Williams was ultimately the answer, though their protege would eventually remain with BAR/Honda, after successfully negotiating a release from his contract.
Over subsequent seasons, many questioned whether Button had made the right decision. After their runners-up position in 2004, BAR fell to sixth in the constructors’ championship the following year, and although a Honda takeover in 2006 helped bring Button a eserved and emotional first win at the Hungaroring, the team’s form subsequently declined, culminating in Honda’s withdrawal from Formula One racing at the end of 2008.
The left Button’s career in limbo for a few months, before a management buyout of the former Honda team put him back on the grid for 2009. Brawn GP proved to be a revelation, with Button winning six of the first seven races en route to finally securing his first drivers' title with one round of the season to spare. That was soon followed by the surprise news of a switch to McLaren to partner Lewis Hamilton for 2010.
As many predicted, Button struggled initially to match his compatriot for outright speed, but that didn’t stop him bringing his new team their first two wins of the season. But with McLaren ultimately outpaced by Red Bull and Ferrari, retaining his crown was never really on the cards and he finished the year fifth overall, one place behind Hamilton.
In 2011 though, Button’s abilities would come to the fore. Whilst Hamilton became embroiled in numerous tangles, Button largely kept out of trouble and produced some of the finest performances of his career. His last gasp victory in Canada - in which he recovered from the back of the field - was just one of several high points in a season which saw him score three wins and 270 points en route to second in the drivers’ championship, three places above Hamilton, the first time that the 2008 world champion had been beaten by a team mate.
2012 started in the best possible way for Button with victory in Australia, but a run of bad luck thereafter left him out of genuine title contention. He did manage to pick up four podiums in the second half of the season, including a classy lights-to-flag win in Belgium and a composed drive to victory in tricky conditions at the Brazilian Grand Prix, but he would have been far from content with fifth in the points.
That was nothing compared to the disappointment of 2013, when McLaren failed to score a podium for the first time since 1980, as a perhaps unnecessarily adventurous car design backfired on the team. Button nevertheless led them admirably through a difficult campaign in which his MP4-28 was never really on the pace. Feisty new team mate Sergio Perez was often his closest rival on track, but he comfortably outscored the Mexican over the course of the season, ending the year ninth in the table.
Button was pitted against another new team mate in 2014 - highly-rated youngster Kevin Magnussen. The Danish rookie stole the headlines with a podium finish in the Australian opener, but as McLaren struggled for form it was the experienced Button who surged ahead with some fine under-the-radar drives. The Briton finished the season a full 71 points ahead of Magnussen and was unsurprising retained by McLaren for 2015.
That season was to prove among the most testing of Button's career, as McLaren's revived partnership with Honda got off to a faltering start, dropping them to the rear of the grid. He scored just 16 points all year, though that was at least five more than new team mate Fernando Alonso. The team's struggles inevitably prompted talk of possible retirement for the F1 veteran, but ever the optimist, Button refused to give up hope and agreed terms to remain with the Woking squad for 2016.