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 drivers standings.
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 r�sum�. "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 ride.
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."