Jenson Button won 15 grands prix and the 2009 world championship in a career that places him firmly in Formula 1’s hall of fame – but the road to the sport’s biggest prizes was in no way instant.
There were podiums, there were pole positions, but it wasn’t until the Englishman’s seventh season and 113th race that he finally achieved the first of those 15 wins – in the most unexpected and yet memorable circumstances for Honda at the 2006 Hungarian GP.
Fourteen years on and Button, now a Sky Sports F1 pundit, was taken back to that rain-hit day in Budapest in our latest Watchalong – joined by two of his team-mates at the time, race engineer Andrew Shovlin and test driver Anthony Davidson.
Watch the entertaining full Sky F1 Watchalong above – free to view in the UK and Ireland – and read on below as Jenson, Anthony and Andrew reminisce with David Croft about an unforgettable day in their careers and an epic race in the sport’s history.
Winning from 14th on the grid? Bring on the rain…
The date? Sunday August 6, 2006.
The venue? The Hungaroring, Budapest, for the 2006 edition of the Hungarian GP – the 13th round of that season’s world championship.
The big pre-race surprise? Rain – and lots of it – at a venue that had never previously held a wet race in its 20 years on the calendar.
“It was one of those crazy races,” recalls Button, who lined up 14th on the grid after an engine penalty in qualifying, on a weekend Honda had looked competitive all through practice and qualifying.
“It hardly ever rains in Hungary – I think it was the first Hungarian GP that was wet – so there was a lot of action to come. A few of the top dogs were starting well back on the grid.”
And those out-of-position drivers certainly didn’t get bigger than 2006’s two title contenders – Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso.
In a brilliant season doused with tension and controversy, the pair had each been handed two-second time penalties for each part of qualifying after falling foul of warning-flag rules on Friday and Saturday practice respectively.
Separated by just 11 points in the championship at this stage, it left Schumacher, the winner of the three previous grands prix, down in 11th for Ferrari, with Alonso in 15th in the Renault.
Honda’s technical problems meant Button started between them.
“We had an engine failure over the weekend and you got a 10-place grid penalty. I had qualified fourth, right next to Rubens [Barrichello] my team-mate, and we were looking strong,” recalls Jenson, who had finished fourth at the previous race in Germany.
“But because of the penalty, it put us back in 14th.
“Also, we were on a low fuel load because the top 10 when you went into qualifying had to pick their fuel load for the race. We went for a lower fuel load probably because we wanted to be as close to the front so when we dropped back 10 places, it wasn’t too bad a position.”
How light a fuel load? Shovlin recalls the RA106 being fuelled with 36 kilos – about 16 laps’ worth – which was not exactly ideal for the first stint of a changeable race like this one became.
Asked if they had seen the Sunday forecast coming, Button quipped: “We definitely didn’t as we only put 36 kilos of fuel in the car! We didn’t expect it. It’s not really that wet [at the start] but it’s one of those tricky conditions. It’s a tough one to really read on how quickly it’s going to dry.”
Alonso vs Schumacher headlines action-packed start
At the start, which McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen led away from pole position, the spray kicked up by the 22 V8-powered 2006 machines underlined the challenge that was going to be ahead for the drivers on this particular Sunday afternoon.
“I made up a couple of places at the start, but lost one to Fernando,” says Button.
“The first lap, I was a bit more cautious just because it’s such a long race this one and in these conditions, we knew we had a quick car and we didn’t want to throw it away on lap one. I finished the first lap in 11th place.”
There was little caution being displayed by Schumacher and Alonso, with the title rivals wasting no time in making up for lost ground through their qualifying penalties.
Schumacher was fourth by the end of lap one, with Alonso sixth. But it was the Spaniard and his Renault’s Michelin tyres which managed to maintain that pace.
“Fernando was on a proper charge,” remembers Button, who himself was into the points by lap two. “He saw Michael had such a good start and he was trying to chase him down – and he really had those tyres working well.
“We had people running on wet tyres and people running on inters – and [there were] two different tyre manufacturers back then.
“Ferrari were on the Bridgestones, which were working in a different way, and Michael was really quick at the start of the race but then it started dropping off a bit, even by lap two.”
Honda were also running Michelins, and Shovlin recalls: “The Michelin intermediate tyre was always a really good tyre and could handle a wide range of conditions.
“It would also wear down nicely and not overheat and that’s something Bridgestone did struggle with.”
Those differences were underlined on lap four when Alonso, who had been ruthlessly rebuffed by Schumacher into the final corner on the previous lap, made a sumptuous move stick around the outside of Turn Five.
“It’s an epic move,” says Button as he watches it back. “The outside line in the wet, we all know from the karting days, it’s better and it’s cleaner. There’s also less steering angle.
“And it’s also about the tyre – you don’t do this to Michael Schumacher if it’s a level playing field. At this stage of the race, the Bridgestones just didn’t have an answer for the Michelins.”
And no one seemingly had an answer for Alonso’s blue and yellow Renault.
“We were still yet to learn fully Fernando’s character at this stage,” remembers Davidson.
“We knew how feisty he could be on track. It’s kind of obvious watching it back how aggressive he was through the traffic but at the time, it was an absolute joy to watch because we were still learning his character in many ways.”
The reigning champion was up into third by lap six when Rubens Barrichello pitted from second in the other Honda, and took the lead on lap 18 once the McLarens of race leader Raikkonen and Pedro de la Rosa made their respective first stops.
‘Piling the pressure on’
With Schumacher’s tyres now struggling, Button made his own move on the legendary German down into Turn One on lap seven, to move into fourth place.
“When you put a move on Michael Schumacher, it’s always pretty special and to do it like that was pretty cool,” said Button.
“If you make a move and it doesn’t come off, he knows exactly what to do after that. He knows where you’ve tried, he knows your gameplan, and he will always find a way to block you the next time around. You’ve got to get it done immediately!”
As the rain intensified, Button pitted for the first time on lap 17, taking on plenty of fuel. He then found himself up to second behind Alonso when Raikkonen crashed into the back of Tonio Liuzzi’s Toro Rosso approaching the chicane.
With debris strewn across the track, and Raikkonen’s McLaren stranded on the grass, the Safety Car was deployed.
At the restart, Button was in traffic and initially lost touch with Alonso, who built a lead of nine seconds. But then the Honda came into its own.
“It’s good when you can put a bit pressure on the guy in these sorts of conditions because there were points in the race where it looked like Fernando was able to manage it and probably thought he was going to have a relatively easy run to the finish,” says Shovlin.
“But once you can start closing them down, it changes that.”
Button adds: “I really enjoyed those conditions. Trying to read situations was a lot of fun – not just for me but the whole team. We were very calm and that won us a race there and in the Brawn days in 2009.”
By lap 43, the Honda was within a second of the leading Renault.
“We’re over half a second quicker on average so it’s about piling the pressure on,” remembers Button.
The moment that changed everything
Button’s charge was briefly interrupted by a second pit stop on lap 46 – but the Honda only took on fuel, not fresh tyres.
“It was Ron Meadows [Honda’s then sporting director] who suggested that as an option,” says Shovlin of the fuel-only strategy. “We knew that we were going to have to stop again for fuel and it was Ron who said, why don’t we take a little bit of fuel and get us through to dry [tyres] and leave that set of [inter] tyres on?”
Renault left Alonso out five laps longer in order to switch straight to dry tyres and so Button inherited the lead for the first time, but with the proviso that the Englishman would have to stop again.
So Alonso still just about appeared in the box seat – but not for long. While Renault’s pit stop had initially appeared to go without a hitch, the Spaniard started grappling with his car as he approached Turn One in the slippery conditions – and was then in the barriers by Turn Three when a wheel nut came loose.
Alonso’s race was suddenly and abruptly over. How does Button reflect on that race-changing moment now?
“In a way, it gifted us the victory but looking at it now it’s actually a shame. It really is a shame. I think we would have had a great race,” rues Button.
“If we did end up second, we would have been relatively happy with our performance but it’s not the feeling of winning. And we hadn’t won as a team – that team of people had never won a race.
“We’d had some races when we came close but you didn’t know if we were ever going to win anything.”
‘The chequered flag came around too quickly’
After Alonso’s retirement on lap 51, Button pitted three laps later for dry tyres and a final dash of fuel to take him to the finish. He returned with an eight-second lead over Schumacher, who had characteristically hauled himself back into contention despite a series of incidents earlier in the race when he broke his front wing and then later spun.
But with the Ferrari attempting to go to the end on badly-worn intermediates, Button started increasing his lead by more than two seconds a lap. A combative Schumacher was eventually overtaken by McLaren stand-in Pedro de la Rosa and BMW’s Nick Heidfield, with the latter incident resulting in race-ending car damage for the Ferrari and crucial lost championship points.
Button lost 10 seconds to De la Rosa in the closing laps as he backed off – but, by then, the victory was never really in doubt with half-a-minute in hand.
“It was one of those weird emotions because there was always the worry that something would go wrong,” said Jenson of the closing laps. “But the chequered flag came around too quickly.
“I had so much going through my mind the last couple of laps, it just went in the blink of an eye and I really wish that the race was longer than it actually was because of so many emotions over the last six years of Formula 1.
“The good, the bad, the ugly then finally this was going to be it, the first win of my F1 career with a team that had worked so hard for it.
Button’s F1 stats up to Hungary 2006
|Best season finish||3rd, 2004|
|Teams raced for||Williams, Benetton/Renault, BAR/Honda|
“I’d been with the team since 2003. We’d had some great times, we got disqualified from a few races, we had loads of podiums but that first win – we didn’t really know if it was going to come, or if it would come. A lot of emotional people in the team were waiting for this chequered flag to fall.”
‘You didn’t know if we were ever going to win anything’
Reflecting on that winning feeling, Button says: “Lots of shouting [on the radio] and Shov’s [message] was – ‘get in JB’, or something like that. And I remember Anthony – it was ‘Martin Brundle, what have you done!’ He was so excited that he was commentating on my first win, and it was his first time commentating. He was a massive part of the team.
“I remember all the team getting so emotional, especially the Japanese, and crying their eyes out.”
Shovlin added: “We had some races where we came close but you didn’t know if we were ever going to win anything. It was just amazing and you’ll never get that again [winning for the first time]. We’d never won a race before and it was sharing that all together that was phenomenal.”
In parc ferme, a jubilant Jenson immediately embraced Nick Fry, Honda’s team boss, and his long-time PA, Jules. Then he sought out his biggest supporter – his late father, John.
“I gave my dad a hug before the podium and then when I was on the podium, he was the first person I tried to hit with the champagne,” says Jenson.
“Obviously I had the guys next to me who finished second and third, Nick and Pedro, but then I aimed it straight for the Old Boy. There’s a nice piece where the guys are trying to help him because they’re thinking he’s crying and he’s like ‘no, I’m not crying, I’ve got champagne in my eyes!'”
What happened next for Button and Honda?
While the celebrations naturally continued on the podium and into the paddock in the immediate aftermath of the race, Button was soon heading for Budapest airport.
“You always want to celebrate with the people who made it happen but the problem was I had to jump straight on a plane from the circuit to fly to London to jump on a big plane to head to China, as I actually had a sponsor event!” reveals Button. “So I didn’t get to celebrate with the team, which was a real shame.”
After a subsequent call-up to visit Honda HQ in Japan to mark their first victory since buying the team outright at the start of the year, Button – the F1 race winner – returned to the paddock three weeks later for the next grand prix in Turkey.
Button’s victory for Honda proved the only non-Ferrari or Renault success of 2006 but the Briton still carried that momentum through the remainder of the season.
In fact, including Hungary, he scored the most points of any driver in the six races to the end of the campaign and finished the year with another podium in Brazil, the 15th of his career.
However, it would be another 41 races – and the arrival of a very different team landscape – before Button and the Brackley team stood on that top step again.
Honda’s momentum infamously didn’t carry over into 2007 and, mocked for their Earth Car livery concept, they slumped to eighth in the championship with just two points more than customer team Super Aguri.
“I remember that first race in Australia [in 2007] and both Super Aguris were quicker than us – in our car that we won a race with the previous year! And that hurt quite a lot and I was quite outspoken about it,” recalls Button.
“I remember the team trying to tell me [it wasn’t the same], because you weren’t just supposed to hand over a car to another team and there had to be changes, and what have you. I was saying it was exactly the car I won a race with, and how are we supposed to compete against that, and the team going ‘no, it’s not the same car’. I was like – it is!”
A diplomatic Shovlin adds: “It was pretty similar…”
Points finishes – let alone podiums – were very hard to come by in both 2007 and 2008 before Honda, despite ploughing millions into development for the new rules of 2009 and hiring Ross Brawn as team boss, dropped a winter bombshell which threatened to end Button’s career by pulling out of F1 amid the worldwide financial crash.
But that discounted the prospect for sporting fairytales – and that’s certainly what awaited Button, Brawn and Brackley in the season that ultimately came to define Jenson’s career one year later.
And, rather like that wet Sunday in Hungary 2006, no one saw that one coming either.
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