WHAT IS THE REAL STORY BEHIND THE MASK, ASKS DANIEL JOHNSON
Jenson Button had two months left in the womb when Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in November 1979. Perhaps his parents played Always Look on the Bright Side of Life over and over in the weeks around his birth. That can be the only explanation for the 35-year-old’s astonishingly upbeat mood.
It has been a wretched start to the year. Back of the grid in Melbourne? “We knew it would be tough.”
Last in the race? “I’m just pleased we made it to the finish.”
In Malaysia Button predicted McLaren would again bring up the rear. It came as no surprise that he was delighted to have limped around for 41 laps before his engine gave up — again. “We were actually racing people,” he beamed.
McLaren’s bulletin ahead of this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix was a depressing read. The short message basically read: don’t expect much from us here (Shanghai’s ludicrously 1.2km long back straight will punish the underpowered Honda engine).
Button is an unwavering team player, displaying loyalty well beyond that shown to him. But there has been no hint he is not being sincere. He appears, genuinely, to be enjoying life in Formula One.
Ten thousand kilometres from smoggy Shanghai, the Le Mans-style World Endurance Championship kicks off at Silverstone this weekend. It is a category full of optimism and talent (Mark Webber has been the highest profile F1 driver to jump ship). The cars are space age and the racing is pure.
In a parallel universe, Button would be on that grid. When it became clear last term that McLaren were dragging their heels over choosing two drivers, the big beats of the sports car world lined up to secure the 2009 champion’s signature.
With Audi, Porsche or Toyota, he could have been the poster boy of a series on the up. Admittedly he would struggle to command his current $NZ15.75 million salary, but it is not like Button is counting his last pennies.
Instead, he is lining up in Shanghai with a team that did not want to keep him — McLaren’s racing management saw their preference to drop Button overturned by the board — in a car which, for now at least, is a no-hoper. He may not even keep his drive for 2016, if he wants it.
It speaks to a wider inability among sportsmen to simply let go. Michael Schumacher, the seven-time champion, came back in 2010, struggling along for three seasons. It became a totally unnecessary, self-inflicted blow to his reputation.
Jimmy Connors ploughed on into his forties despite plummeting down the rankings. He may well win the Masters, and prove all the doubters wrong, but Tiger Woods has been equally guilty of lingering at the door.
Button is clearly suffering from such an affliction. He is a world champion with nothing more to prove. There seems to be nothing more to be gained by sticking around in F1 with the McLaren-Honda pairing possibly years from success.
McLaren boss Ron Dennis should be grateful they were unsuccessful in their bid to sack Button at the end of last year. For now, the 35-year-old will simply soldier on, taking heed of Eric Idle’s famous line — “Cheer up ya old b — — , c’mon give us a grin!”