In his rookie Formula One season, 20-year-old Jenson Button has
learned almost as much about celebrity as he has about driving.
When team boss owner Frank Williams offered him a ride in
January, Button became the youngest British F/1 driver ever, and
because former world champ Damon Hill had retired after the 1999
season, he became England's most popular active driver, too.
Before he took his first green flag, Buttonmania had been born.
"It's quite strange that so many people are interested in my
life," he says. (Sample question about personal preferences from
an interview in F1 Racing magazine: "Legs or bums?" Button
diplomatically replied, "They're on a par.")
It didn't take long for Button to live up to the hype. He tallied
his first point in his second race, finishing sixth in Brazil. In
his 13th start, the Belgium Spa Francochamps, Button qualified
third and finished fifth on a course widely regarded as the most
demanding on the F/1 circuit. That gave him three top five
finishes in his last four races, placing him eighth in the
Not bad for a kid who is only two years removed from kart racing.
Three-time F/1 champ Jackie Stewart once said of Button, "You
can't go straight from kindergarten to university," and several
of Button's fellow drivers were underwhelmed by his resume. "At
the start of the year a few people said a few things," says
Button. "But most have come up and said they regret it. That's a
good feeling when they say you proved them wrong."
Writers love to compare Button to James Bond--the matching
initials, the dashing good looks, the grace under pressure. For
most of the season Button has indeed played the role as coolly as
Connery. But his season hasn't been without its, well, Lazenby
moments. There was a five-race string in which Button never
finished better than eighth. He had a very nasty, very public
breakup with his girlfriend, which was choice fodder for Fleet
Street. And then there's one other small matter: He's losing his
After nearly a year of speculation, Williams secured the services
of Juan Montoya, the 1999 CART champion and former Williams test
driver, for the 2001 season. With the other ride on his
BMW-supported team held securely by Ralf Schumacher, Williams had
to make room for Montoya, and he did so by lending Button to
Benetton, with a two-year option to bring him back. "I already
knew I might not be at Williams next year," says Button. "I'm
starting over again. It's not going to be the easiest thing, but
it's got to be done. I've just got to get used to the job."
So being at the center of Buttonmania isn't always rosy, but at
least, says Button, "When I go to a club I can get into the VIP
area." When you're 20, that's a pretty big deal. "It's been a
good year," he says. "My life couldn't be much better."
COLOR PHOTO: MARK THOMPSON/ALLSPORT