Jenson Button: a deserving champion?

Belated congratulations to Jenson Button for becoming the 2009 World Champion. I know it’s long overdue, but hey — that’s what happens when real life takes over (more on that real life stuff can be found here).

I have not always been convinced that Jenson Button is a good driver. In fact, the only times he has impressed me before were his d├ębut season in 2000, and 2007 when he did an admirable job in what was by all accounts a horrendous car. In 2008 he was, oddly, not so impressive. Perhaps he had lost motivation after being let down by Honda for too many years, but the fact is that Rubens Barrichello did a better job in 2008.

The Brazilian had his moments in 2009, but it is difficult to argue that he was better than Jenson Button throughout the season. While Button’s sudden rise to the sharp end of the grid at the start of 2009 got many people asking whether it was all down to the car, Barrichello was often to be found scrapping around in the lower end of the points positions.

There is no doubt about the fact that this year’s Brawn car was much better than last year’s Honda car was a major contributory factor towards Jenson Button’s Championship victory. And it is true that Rubens Barrichello performed better than Button in the second half of the season. And, yes, without Barrichello’s vital set-up data, Jenson Button would probably have been nowhere.

But while Jenson Button was pounding in the wins, taking full advantage of the Brawn’s superiority while it was still there, Rubens Barrichello took too long to get up to speed with it. Let us also not forget that Jenson Button was seriously impressive during the first half of the season, putting in some of the best overtaking moves there have been all year.

It is certainly the case that this sort of aggressive form was not much in evidence during the second half of the season. After gaining victory in Turkey, it seems as though Jenson Button tensed up, not returning to form until Brazil.

For a lot of people, this was turning out to be a real damp squib. People do not like to see a driver winning a championship by merely bagging points rather than taking impressive victories. However, Button earned the right to be given this leeway, so impressive he was at the start of the season.

I would have said after Turkey that Jenson Button would have to have been really bad in the second half of the season to not deserve the title. But while he may have been slightly disappointing, he wasn’t really bad. He only failed to score once all year, in Belgium when he was crashed into on lap one. That is a pretty intimidating achievement.

Now it is no secret that Jenson Button suffered under the stress of defending his championship lead. Simply looking at his results for the season tells its own story. He was dominant in the first seven races, but occupied the lower end of the points for the rest of the season.

While some were critical of this drop in form, the fact is that almost all championship leaders do this. In fact, it would be completely foolish to any driver with a massive championship lead at the mid-way point to tackle the second half of the season in the same manner. As Ross Brawn said, if a football team is leading 3-0 at half time, they don’t play the second half in the same style as the first.

Looking back over the years, this is a pattern that is repeated time after time. The driver who leads at the halfway point of the season almost always scores fewer points in the second half of the season. Looking at the past ten seasons, the leader at the halfway point has always turned down the wick, with the exception of Fernando Alonso in 2005. The drop in performance has been particularly marked since the points system was changed for 2003, which shifted the balance towards consistency and conservatism over aggression.

(In seasons with an odd number of races, the middle race has been removed from the calculation.)

Year Leader at halfway point First half points Second half points Difference
2009 Jenson Button 69 27 42
2008 Lewis Hamilton 48 40 8
2007 Lewis Hamilton 64 39 25
2006 Fernando Alonso 84 50 34
2005 Fernando Alonso 59 74 -15
2004 Michael Schumacher 80 68 18
2003 Michael Schumacher 54 39 15
2002 Michael Schumacher 70 68 2
2001 Michael Schumacher 58 55 3
2000 Michael Schumacher 56 52 4

Clearly, Button’s drop-off was particularly extreme. However, it was not that much more extreme than Alonso’s in 2006. Alonso is rightly lauded for being conservative when he needs to be. Button should be too. Even though the drop-off seemed alarming, the fact is that he had made himself more than enough room to get away with it, and still secure the championship with one race to spare. Why expend more energy by taking the more risky strategy of going all-out for wins when you can achieve it in the way Jenson Button did?

Nonetheless, it is difficult to deny that the way Jenson Button won the championship was slightly underwhelming. It certainly wouldn’t have been very satisfying were it not for his scintillating performance in Brazil. Of course, he did indeed pull that performance out of the bag just when he needed it, so it is slightly academic now.

But by almost any measure you can conceive of, Jenson Button was the most deserving person to win the championship. I have had a look at different scoring systems that would reward more consistent performances throughout the season. Although it is always a spurious exercise to impose different scoring systems on a set of races that have already taken place (remembering that altering the incentives inevitably affects behaviour), it is interesting to look at systems that may have punished Jenson Button for not performing so well towards the end of the season.

One such system would be to split the season into, say, four sections, with drivers dropping their worst score from each quarter of the season. What with there being an odd number of races in 2009, this is affected by where you decide to place the splits. But with three sections of four races, and a final section with the final four races, this cuts Jenson Button’s lead down to just three points over Sebastian Vettel. However, Button would still win under this system.

Splitting the season into two halves and making drivers drop two scores, Button’s victory margin can be cut down to two points. However, Button still wins the championship.

The only vaguely sensible system I have been able to come up with is making drivers drop six scores from the whole season. This puts Button and Vettel level on points, although of course Button would still win the championship because he has won more races.

Only by splitting the season into two and making drivers drop three scores from each half does Vettel score more points than Button. Whether it would be desirable to have a system where six races from each driver’s season do not count towards the championship is debatable.

Looking at the results of the season, it is striking just how superior Jenson Button was to everyone else. Jenson Button only failed to score once. His nearest challenger, Vettel, chalked up five zeros. Mark Webber failed to score seven times, while Hamilton finished pointless nine times.

Button also won two more races than anyone else. To Button’s six, Vettel took the chequered flag four times, while Barrichello, Webber and Hamilton each took it twice.

In terms of the results, the clear closest challenger to Button has been Vettel. No doubt there would have been complaints about his championship too, due to his tendency still to make mistakes, and his alarming inability to overtake. And speaking of overtaking, who could deny that Button pulled off some of the best overtaking moves of the season?

Is Jenson Button a deserving champion? I can hardly imagine what more you could ask for.


  1. I really don’t think it matters who we think deserves the title. Whatever points system is used, whoever has the most points at the end of the season becomes World Champion. And that’s that.

  2. @ rfs–

    I keep telling people the same thing over and over again. By the definition of competition, whoever scores the most points is the most deserving champion. The only exception is if he and/or the team are discovered to be cheaters later on. No other argument cuts the mustard.

  3. RFS and Explosiva — thanks for commenting.

    It’s a good point. The rules are the rules, and all the drivers know what the score is prior to the season’s start.

  4. Well, it’s pretty obvious the driver who scores more points is the most deserving champion, so, from that perspective, Jenson is a deserving champion, as well as a fast driver and nice guy.

    That said, I think many people have made the same reflexion based on F1, as any other motor sport competition, is a mix between driver competence and machine performance, being the last one the most important factor of that mix.

    During half of the season, Brawn cars were a rocket and no one could be at their level; Jenson delivered, he did the work he was asked for and won almost everything. In fact, the only race he didn’t won, was a rainy race, and rain equalize cars performance.

    During the rest of the season, Brawn’s car were not one or two steps forward, but they were well placed in the top 3 teams, and what we saw was Jenson struggling with just two podiums in 10 races (Italy 2nd and Abu Dhabi 3rd)

    So, for me (IMHO) the point is this championship has been more about the car than about the driver, despite (and I insist on this) Jenson deserves this title.

    Jenson needed the GREAT advantage Brawn’s car had during the first half of the season to become WDC, and when the car was equalized with others, Jenson could not delivered any one single race in which one would have felt the driver was outperforming the car.

    Talking about drivers, if some of us were a F1 one manager with unlimited budget (sorry Max, this is just a metaphor) and have to choose only one driver of the following list:

    a) Alonso
    b) Button
    c) Hamilton
    d) Raikkonen
    e) Vettel

    Do you honestly think there were somebody hiring Jenson instead anyone of the rest?

    ps: Vee, nice to see you returning back. Maintain a blog alive is quite hard, congrats for not surrendering.

    Merry christmas for everybody!

  5. Hi IDR,

    You make a very good point. Clearly Button needed the car to win the Championship, although I doubt anyone has won the championship in the past twenty years at least without driving the best car. But this is why it was so important that Button hammered home his advantage over Barrichello in the early part of the season. While Button took six wins out of seven, Barrichello was left in the dust. While Barrichello improved a great deal in the second half of the season relative to Button, the damage had been done.

    You are totally right, however, that were you to choose one driver for your fantasy team, Button would not be the driver you choose. In fact, I expect him to be thoroughly beaten by Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2010.