At the end of 1999, on the back of third place in the British Formula 3 Championship and a second place at the Macau Grand Prix, a 19-year-old Jenson Button signed a three year contract with Williams for 2000, filling the void left by Alex Zanardi‘s departure.
Williams were keen to have Montoya replace Zanardi in 2000 after the Italian endured a miserable 1999, but Montoya – racing in the US with Chip Ganassi – was keen to defend his title and in doing so, delaying his F1 debut.
So, despite a strong debut season in which he scored six top six finishes taking him to 8th in the Championship, when Montoya finally arrived in 2001, Button found himself surplus to requirements.
But he was still contracted to Williams, and while Sir Frank preferred the Montoya/Ralf Schumacher combo for the 2001 F1 campaign, he didn’t want to let Button go completely, deciding instead to retain him, and loan him to Benetton for two years, after which he’d have the option of resigning him for Williams.
Life after Williams
His first season at Benetton was a disaster. That year’s car was a brute and Button found himself routinely outperformed by team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella, Button reasoning that his inexperience prevented him from getting the car set up to perform to its fullest.
In Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore Button found one of his most vocal critics. ‘Either he shows he’s super-good or he leaves the top echelon of drivers‘ he would say of the young Briton, before suggesting he might not last the season at Benetton.
In his second year at the team, newly badged ‘Renault’ following a buyout of the Benetton team by the French car giant he fared much better, outscoring new team-mate Jarno Trulli 14 to 9.
However, Fernando Alonso’s arrival on the scene and Briatore’s lack of conviction in ‘lazy playboy’ Button led to the announcement halfway through the season that he’d leave the team at the end of 2002.
So his Williams contract came to an end and off he went to BAR on a two-year deal where a strong first season with the team gave him hope of being a title contender in his second.
BAR vs Williams & Button
Six podiums in the first eight races of the 2004 season, however, wasn’t enough to convince Button he’d have a genuine crack at a world championship. Sir Frank pounced and convinced him to rejoin Williams who were losing both Montoya and Schumacher for 2005.
And so, despite Button finishing the season ahead of both Williams, on the 5th August 2004 he re-signed for Williams.
But that was not that. Dave Richards, BAR team boss, unhappy to be losing his #1 driver insisted that he had an option on Button’s services beyond 2004 which he’d like to exercise and as such, the contract he’d signed with Williams was invalid.
The dispute hinged on a clause in Button’s BAR contract that negated their option to retain Button if they risked losing their Honda engines.
Despite BAR signing a new deal with Honda that summer, Button’s management team took the dispute to Formula 1’s Contract Recognition Board, where they lost out and Button was forced to remain with BAR for another year.
BAR & Button vs Williams
The 2005 season started poorly, and no doubt encouraged by the scandal he found himself embroiled in at the San Marino Grand Prix (where the BARs were found to have additional and crucially illegal fuel tanks which when full would take the otherwise underweight car above the minimum weight mandated by the FIA, resulting in a two race ban for the team) Button decided to try and again make the move to Williams stick, signing a pre-contract with the team for 2006.
But a strong finish to the season convinced Button his best chance of competing for silverware was with BAR and in any case, (in his opinion) his pre-contract with Williams wasn’t legally binding.
Williams however, having been involved in driver contracts once or twice before, knew different. Their contract was absolutely binding, and for the second time in two years, Button found himself at the centre of a contractual dispute with Williams.
The difference this time was that whereas previously he had a contract with Williams that he wished to honour, this time he’d want to break his contract in order to avoid joining them.
Lengthy discussions ensued and Button was eventually obliged to buy his way out of his contract (allegedly to the tune of a whopping £18m!). Button remained with BAR (becoming Honda in 2006) where he’d win his first Grand Prix, and when the team was bought out by Ross Brawn in 2009 after Honda’s withdrawal, he’d seal the ultimate prize – the Formula 1 World Championship.
So you could say it worked out for both parties.
But the two weren’t done with each other just yet. There was almost a final twist in the tail.
In 2016 it was reported that Button almost rejoined Williams for a second time, before opting to remain at McLaren for his final full season in Formula 1.
In a way it would have been nice for the story to have come full circle. But the 2016 Williams wasn’t the Williams Button twice nearly joined in 2005 and 2006, and he wasn’t quite the driver he was then either.
So perhaps it’s best that both looked to what would bring them success in the future rather than the past.