Few drivers have had a career come to them as seemingly easily as Jenson Button. Starting his karting career in 1988, he won the British Cadet Championship at the age of ten before going on to win effectively every British karting championship there was to win. A move into the European championships continued his long run of victories: he won the Senior ICA Italian Championship against drivers with far more experience, was the youngest ever runner up in the Formula A World Championship (and was denied a title through a broken chain in the final) and the youngest winner of the European Super A Championship.
In 1998 Button moved into cars, starting as he meant to go on by winning the British Formula Ford Championship along with the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. He was the only realistic choice for the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award, and moved into Formula Three the following year, winning two races and claiming third (and highest placed rookie) in the championship. He was also second (and again highest placed rookie) at the Macau Grand Prix.
Button's first taste of Formula One came at the wheel of a McLaren, part of the prize for winning the BRDC award, which led to a test with the Prost team. Within ten laps he had outpaced Prost driver Jean Alesi. With talk of a Prost drive in the offing Frank Williams offered Button a test, with a potential test driver position being considered; this turning into a shoot out for a race drive against Bruno Junqueira when Alessandro Zanardi's departure from the team was announced, and the young Briton subsequently claimed the seat.
Button's debut year in Formula One, in 2000 and at the age of twenty, was not without incident but impressed enough that, when Williams honoured a previous arrangement to bring Juan Pablo Montoya into the sport, he was snapped up by Benetton / Renault. The team was on a low ebb, and he struggled against teammate Giancarlo Fisichella's noted pace before coming to terms with new teammate Jarno Trulli in 2002.
This performance was enough to earn Button a seat with BAR the following year alongside World Champion Jacques Villeneuve. The combination of speed and experience clicked; Button beat the Canadian on-track to claim the de facto team leader position, a position which was solidified with Villeneuve's forced retirement from the sport at the end of the year.
DC: It's been really noticeable at the end of last year and then in winter testing that the team seemed to take another step up; is there something you can put your finger on as to why?
Jenson Button: "It's the team, you know, there were some very good people here before and then Geoff Willis arrived, David's obviously here, two new drivers and a lot of other people behind the scenes who have really moved the team forward. The reasons for it are we've not just worked in certain areas, and we've worked on everything; the engine is a lot lighter than last year, it's more reliable which is important, the car is also lighter, it has a lower centre of gravity, and you can move the weight around and you can really feel the differences.
"I think a lot of it comes from experience in Formula One, and now BAR is in its sixth year and has a lot of experience, there are a lot of good people onboard, but from last year to this year it was very difficult to have a car that was going to fight for the World Championship because it's too big a leap to make. But I think the step forward that we've made is quite impressive for a lot of teams."
DC: The team was fifth in the Championship, but it really only happened in the last round; before that there were a number of teams around the same position. You went into winter testing with this, ran the hybrid car and then the new car, but what is it that's improved?
JB: "It's everything; it's not huge steps, it's a lot of little steps along the way. The interim car was a step forward, and then this (the new car) is again, but there are a lot of new parts coming along that are very important I think. You know, it's great turning up to the first race with a good car, but you really do need to keep building on that. If you look at our car at the start of the year it's very simple compared to some cars out there, and there is a lot more room for improvement, which is good."
DC: You say it's simple, but in what way?
JB: "If you look at the car it's very simple compared to the other cars; they've got bits everywhere aerodynamically and we're just a lot more simple, and I think it's a good way of working; there's a lot of room to build the car."
DC: The saying goes that a clean car, a good looking car, is a fast car, but is it just as simple as that?
JB: "It's very difficult really; if you look at the Williams car it's not the prettiest car out there but it's pretty quick. So it's difficult really but if it's got good lines, normally there's more to it than that, but it's a step in the right direction."
DC: How good a car is it for this year's competition compared to your Williams for 2000?
JB: "A lot quicker."
DC: Obviously cars improve over the years, but you are currently at x amount competitively for this year, and I wondered how that compares to the competitive level of your Williams for that year.
JB: "For the first race I think it's probably quite similar, but I think that was a great result for us and we've built on that already since then. I think it is probably quite similar to a few of the races in 2000; consistency was our great failure in 2000."
DC: Why was that?
JB: "I don't know; for me it was because it was my first year in Formula One, and personally I'm a lot different to how I was in 2000 and gained a lot of experience since then."
DC: In winter testing you know where you are with the car, but you don't necessarily know where the others are; how did you measure yourselves against them at the time?
JB: "We still don't know where we are, we still don't know going into the first race exactly where we stood. We knew we had taken a step forward with the car, because it was a completely different feeling from driving the car last year, but we still didn't know where we were, especially against Ferrari, and against Renault and Williams. We didn't know how much fuel they were running in testing. So it was really exciting to see where we are in qualifying at the first race, in Australia. We were really happy to be fourth, and also I think we had similar fuel in as the other top guys because we all stopped around the same lap, so it was good. And after that we were a little shocked at how much we fell away in the race."
DC: Yes; it looked like you were having some tyre problems at the back.
JB: "I don't know how but we damaged the front wing, and that… you don't just lose grip at the front, you lose grip at the back. And that wouldn't have helped, and also it was our first time on the tyres for a race distance, so we did struggle a bit, but I think we've got a lot of good information from that and we know the reasons for it, which is great, and we shouldn't have those issues again."
DC: So you are on top of these problems now?
JB: "Yeah, 100%, which is great. It's nice to know where the problem was."
DC: So where do you think BAR is going to go from here?
JB: "I think that we need to be closer to the top teams, and we can be; we can be a lot closer to Williams, but we need to keep building on that and I think we can. We need to keep building on our pace, and 100% throughout the season; we can't start thinking 'okay, the car's pretty good' and that's it; we have to keep working on it because that's exactly what the top teams do, and it's where they gained pace last year because they kept working at it. So hopefully by the end of the season our aim is to be fourth as a team, and hopefully we'll be closer to the top three teams than a lot of people think."
DC: You said before you didn't know where you were against Ferrari, but you probably don't measure yourselves against them at the moment.
JB: "No, they're on a different tyre, which makes a difference, and I think here (in Malaysia) they're not going to be anywhere near as quick as in Melbourne, because also last year in Melbourne they were awesome. I think it's going to be a lot closer here."
DC: So who do you use as a benchmark then?
JB: "It's more Williams and Renault; Renault I think are very consistent, awesomely consistent; they've done a very good job on that side of things. If you look at Williams they seem to be quick in qualifying and in the race they're relatively quick, but the Renaults in qualifying are all right and very quick in the races. So it's just two very different cars it seems, and that makes it very interesting for us. That's the main people we judge ourselves against."
DC: What about McLaren? They are noticeably absent in your list.
JB: "At the moment no, but I'm sure they'll improve; they have to. They have the experience, they have the people, they have two great drivers and there's no real reason why they're not on the pace; I don't really know why they're not. I'm sure they'd improve."
DC: From testing is it quite a surprise where they are?
JB: "No not really, because I didn't really think they were anywhere in testing either."
DC: Why not?
JB: "Because they weren't! (laughs) They broke some lap records but they would have been on low fuel; you don't break lap records unless you're on low fuel; it's impossible."
DC: You mentioned Renault, and you and Renault seem to be the teams to upset the apple cart this year. Why is that? Is it a generational change, or something else?
JB: "Yeah I think it always seems to happen in Formula One; if you're a top team in the end you will get there. If you look at the history of Formula One the top teams have always … it just seems to happen in periods. For example, Williams will get to number one and be there for a number of years, and then Renault will come along and knock them off the top, Williams will come back again; it always seems to be the same way.
"I think it's pretty normal; Renault have a lot of great people working there, they've gained a lot of experience throughout the years, and I think they've got a better engine now. So it's normal I think, but it's quite interesting because Renault and Williams are the two teams that I drove for before, and they're the two teams that we look at really to try and be on their pace."
DC: What do you want to get out of this year?
JB: "I wouldn't look at the Championship, I'd rather look at races, short term goals, and I want to be on the podium more than one time this year. And it's not just being on the podium, I want to be challenging at the front; I don't want to be on the podium through luck, or I finish third and be thirty seconds behind the leader. I want to have some close fights, and if that happens then I think I'll be happy this year."
There is a story about the career path of Takuma Sato that says he needs two years to succeed in a series; the first year will consist of a lot of crashes as he goes over the limit of his car to find it, and the second year he will take the lessons learnt and dominate. This is unlikely to happen in Formula One, but considering his undoubted speed the other drivers have good reason to look over their shoulders. Sato has always had a keen interest in cycling, and as a youth he dreamt of success on two wheels. His first taste of karting changed that, and he scraped together the money to buy his first kart. In 1997 he was the karting champion in Honda's Suzuka Racing School Scholarship and was handed the prize of a fully paid season in the Japanese Formula Three Championship. He chose not to accept it, turning his attention instead towards Europe.
In 1998 Sato contested in the Formula Vauxhall Junior series, moving up during the year to Formula Opel with Diamond Racing. He split the following year between the Opel series and, later, the Scholarship Class in British Formula Three, running competitively in both series. He also took his first win in Macau that year, in the support race.
For 2000 Sato moved up to the A Class of Formula Three with Carlin Motorsports, claiming five wins and third in the championship in a wild learning season. Formula One teams took note, and he had his first tests with Jordan and BAR that year before signing as test driver for the latter at the behest of engine supplier Honda.
Sato demolished the competition the following year, taking twelve of a possible thirteen wins along the way to his F3 title, the highest number of wins ever in the series. He also grabbed wins at the Marlboro Masters in Zandvoort and both races at the Macau Grand Prix. Honda seemed to finally have what they were looking for after so long; a Japanese driver who could make it to the top flight on pure ability rather than financial support.
Jordan snapped him up for a race drive in 2002, and it was a dramatic season. Sato seemed unable to come to terms with teammate Giancarlo Fisichella's speed, and had a number of off-track adventures in pursuit of his quick colleague. Sato refined his approach over the season before claiming his first points finish at the season closer in Japan with a fine fifth place, and then returned to BAR for the following year.
Sato spent 2003 as the team's third driver, working closely on development with the BAR and Honda engineers, developing the car and looking for improvements. His hard work was rewarded with a race drive for 2004, with an early appearance at the end of the year in Japan, replacing Jacques Villeneuve who didn't show up. Sato proved his worth by claiming a hard won sixth place.
DC: You were the test driver last year and have been involved in the team's programme for some time; what do you think has been most noticeable about their improvement over this time?
Takuma Sato: "I think there is continuous work. BAR Honda has a structure since David Richards came, and he made it a new structure for the team and built it up. Basically the last year was the first year that they planned it and did an action as a first year, and I think they did it quite well. Technically Honda's commitment has improved every year, and instead of them developing themselves like BAR and Honda (separately) and choosing what is the best, with the restriction of time and energy it is better to have the one (together). So Honda and BAR have come together and developed the one thing, and it's a lot better I think."
DC: There has been a noticeable improvement in that; in previous years Honda and BAR seemed fairly far apart, and it has certainly improved last year and this year. How has that come about?
TS: "I think from BAR's point of view as a very newish team they didn't have a historical way to do it; so it's more being open minded and prepared to try new things. And Honda's got a very successful past, although it was ten, fifteen years ago, and as a third generation Honda's return to Formula One was not only as an engine manufacturer but also trying to develop the car as well, and that's very different. And obviously BAR and Honda has the same philosophy to do some new type of work in Formula One. I think it does take a little bit of time, and that was it over the last two years."
DC: How much of an improvement have you seen in the team since you joined them?
TS: "It's quite significant actually, because in the last year I have been involved in development programme, so I can see how significant the development has been, and that was a fantastic experience for me. But also for me I only did my first year in Jordan, and that was a great season but we didn't have a great test time because they hardly ever did any testing after the first few races. So to be honest I don't know; I've never been to a different team to test, but I think all I can say is obviously the BAR Honda development work is continuously working; that's quite a strong point. This year, as I said, instead of the two development programmes we do one, and that's quite significant."
DC: Jordan ran a Honda engine during your time there; what is the most significant difference between the two teams while you've been there?
TS: "Circumstances are quite, quite different really; as Jordan is a very little private team. Basically Eddie Jordan gave me a great opportunity to drive a Formula One car, and he chose me as a Grand Prix driver and we had a really great season, but basically Honda wasn't involved in the chassis development on the Jordan at that time, and with BAR they do, so it's very different basis. And now Honda is only with one team, so they can try anything they want, and that makes a huge difference on testing and development leads."
DC: How much of an impact do you think you've had on the development of this year's car?
TS: "I think that's one thing it is better to ask Geoff, because he is the man who knows this, but I could say to you that I had a big involvement in the development of the gearbox on last year's car, with internal gears, changings and everything, based on Honda's development programme in a package with engine development. Honda developed this package, and I was involved in it, and every time I tested it, it was better and better.
"Unfortunately we couldn't use that stuff on last year's car; it was all ready to go on the last race, but we couldn't because it didn't have enough testing. And then obviously having a new car with that gearbox on it I'm very pleased, because you can see how it developed, and now I'm using it on the racing stuff and that was quite big. Also I think Honda is looking into the suspension geometry as well, and that's quite handy because changing from Bridgestone to Michelin we had to redesign the suspension, which means a lot of time in the races, which I think helps."
DC: You did a lot of testing in winter; when you were doing that how did you compare yourselves with the other teams, which is very difficult to do, and how do you compare yourselves to them now that you've raced?
TS: "Well the team is obviously looking at the other teams to see what they are doing, but you never know the true answer. Obviously from a driver's point of view you just concentrate on your development programme, not looking at the other side, only looking at the front with the engineers at the programme you make and how you achieve that programme. So I didn't really see the others."
DC: So where do you see yourself this year? What are your aims?
TS: "Basically my ambition is the same as the team's ambition; challenging the top teams and finishing in the top four of the Constructors' Championship. But to be able to do that basically you need a podium finish and constantly score the points, and that's what my goal is; just get a podium throughout the season at some stage, and of course the earlier the better. If I could do it, that would be very good, and obviously I've never been on the podium (in Formula One) so it would be very nice to have that!"