Wrong Button Pushed

IMOLA, Italy - The first day of practice for the San Marino Grand Prix had ended in typical frustrating fashion for Jenson Button, Giancarlo Fisichella and the Mild Seven Benetton Renault team. Fisichella had only managed to post the 15th-quickest time, while Button languished down in 17th place. That's about where you expect to see the Benettons these days.

That same afternoon, I headed for Benetton's regular "meet the drivers" press conference at the team's motor home in the Imola paddock. Last year, when Button was a hot new rookie at Williams BMW, similar sessions at the Williams camp would be attended by a swarm of journalists. On this particular day in Imola, there were two people sitting at the table: Jenson and me.

Not having to deal with the hoards of media is, Button told me, one of the few upsides of the downside of this season.

Last year, Button went from strength to strength and from success to success in his maiden F-1 season. He finished sixth in his second Grand Prix and scored a total of six top-six points finishes to end up eighth in the World Championship. Along with teammate Ralf Schumacher, he helped Williams BMW finish third in the Constructors Championship.

But all through last season there was a cloud on Button's horizon... Juan-Pablo Montoya. Frank Williams had basically promised Montoya a seat for 2001, and that meant Button, even though he and Montoya were under long-term contracts to the Williams team, would not be able to race for the team this season.

Still, it didn't seem to bad, because Williams loaned Button to Benetton for the 2001 and 2002 seasons. While not as competitive as Williams in 2000, Benetton still managed to finish fourth in the Constructors Championship.

So far, however, the 2001 season has been as much of a disaster for Button and Benetton as it has been a success for Montoya and Williams.

This is the first year of Renault's return to Formula One, and so far the French auto manufacturer's innovative 111-degree V10 engine has been down on power and reliability.

Has there not been a day when Button got out of the car this season and been so frustrated that he just wanted to kick it

"Yeah, today, we've had quite a few problems," Button said on Friday in Imola. "In the second session I just had a loss of power. It's a bummer because I didn't get to do any comparisons. It's very difficult and you don't get to test that much. We just have to wait and see what happens. It's frustrating, but it's frustrating for the whole team and not just me."

You hear words like struggling, frustrating and difficult often at Benetton these days. Button's teammate, Fisichella, boosted the team's morale with a sixth-place finish in Brazil two weeks ago.

"We didn't expect to finish the race and score a point," Fisichella said. "It was a little bit about winning for us because we are struggling with engine power."

Earlier I had asked Fisichella how he's getting along with Button, and if he's been able to give his new teammate any advice for these frustrating times.

"I have a very good feeling with Jenson," Fisichella told me. "He's a nice guy. It's not easy for him after last year when he was very competitive. It's not easy for him, mentally, to do well now. We work together and sometimes I give him some advice and help him, and sometimes I ask him some questions. We work together. That's very important for the team and for us."

Back to Button, who agrees the whole team is working to get out of this predicament.

"We're all working together and it's bloody tough for everyone, especially the mechanics," Button said. "The mechanics put so much effort in. They work 10 times harder than we do... including you! Probably 20 times more than you do! It's really tough on them."

No argument there! He may be down but he's not out.

Earlier in the day I'd seen Button clowning around for a TV commercial. He hasn't lost his sense of humor, and he told me he's more dedicated to F-1 than ever. And the team has promised to have major modifications ready for the car in time for the French Grand Prix in early July.

By now, two other journalists have joined us, so our group has grown to a grand total of four. One of them asked Button if he was frustrated to see Montoya battling for the lead in Brazil in what was "Button's car."

"Yeah," Button admits, "but hopefully this won't be my last year in F-1 and I will be doing that next year or the year after."

I told Button that Montoya believes his frustrating 2000 CART season made him a better driver because it made him a more patient person. Could that perhaps be one of the positives of this dismal season for Button?

"I hope so," he said. "It's very frustrating and it can only get better. We haven't got the best setup in the world, but we still have to push to do our best and still deliver 100 percent. It's still the same as last year in one way... it's just that we're farther down the field. But hopefully not too long."

Then he summed it all up in one sentence: "I don't like being near the back!"

Race Center

Grand Prix of Brazil

@ Sao Paulo, Brazil
Sunday, November 24, 2013

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