Jenson Button clinched his first World Driver's Championship at Interlagos to become the 10th F1 champion from Britain.
It's been a long time coming. Button had a successful career in karts and junior formulae and made it to F1 in 2000 with Williams at the age of only 20, but in that first season he was outpaced by his more experienced team mate Ralf Schumacher. Button then endured uncompetitive seasons with Benetton/Renault and BAR/Honda, winning only once in his first nine years - in Hungary in 2006, following the retirement of Fernando Alonso's Renault.
Button appeared to be without a F1 seat for 2009 until Ross Brawn led a management buyout of the former Honda team. Hastily re-engined thanks to Mercedes-Benz the Brawn cars proved to be the class of the field in the early part of the 2009 season, and Button won six of the first seven races. Despite a mid-season dip in fortunes Button played a percentage game to lead the championship into the final two races. In Brazil he drove a champion's race from 14th on the grid to finish fifth and, while Mark Webber stood on the top step of the podium as Advance Australia Fair rang around Interlagos, Button celebrated his first world title.
Button succeeds Lewis Hamilton as world champion. The last time Britain had two consecutive F1 champions was in 1968/69 with Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart.
The Other British F1 Champions
Mike Hawthorn (1958) A party animal and practical joker, but Hawthorn’s roguish charm hid a steely competitiveness - which may, ultimately, have been his downfall. Hawthorn won just one race, in France, in his championship year to the four of Stirling Moss (see below), but a string of good points finishes gave him the title. It was just a few weeks later that Hawthorn crashed his Jaguar 3.4 road car on the Guildford bypass - racing Rob Walker’s Mercedes, some believe, though nobody really knows - and was killed.
Graham Hill (1962, 1968) Londoner Hill put a great deal of effort into his racing, winning two F1 driver’s championships as a result – plus the Indianapolis 500 in 1966 and Le Mans in 1972. He remains the only F1 champion to also win the US and French classics. Hill won four Grands Prix for BRM on his way to the 1962 title and was championship runner-up in 1963, 1964 and 1965. Left BRM in 1967 to drive the new Cosworth V8-powered Lotus 49, lifting the team’s morale after the deaths of Jim Clark and Mike Spence in 1968 with early-season victories in Spain and Monaco, and eventually the 1968 title. Despite a nasty crash during the US GP in 1969 which left him with badly broken legs Hill resumed his F1 career, ultimately with his own Embassy-Hill team. He finally retired from driving in 1975, but in November that year his Piper Aztec light aircraft crashed on Arkley golf course in Hertfordshire in thick fog. Hill and five members of his team, including the promising young driver Tony Brise, were killed in the accident.
Jim Clark (1963, 1965) Borders sheep farmer who was a natural racer, and still regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Forged a successful partnership with Colin Chapman of Lotus which lasted throughout his career. Fought hard in 1962 but was let down by his equipment, then dominated the 1963 season with a record seven wins in 10 races. In 1964 his Lotus let him down again, but Clark bounced back with six wins and a second world title in 1965, picking up the Indianapolis 500 the same year. Clark should have gone on to further glory with Chapman's brilliant Lotus 49, which gave him his last grand prix victory in South Africa in the first race of the 1968 grand prix season. A few weeks later, in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim, Clark's Lotus left the road after a tyre failure and crashed into the trees. The likable Scot was killed instantly.
John Surtees (1964) Still the only world champion on both two wheels and four, Surtees dominated grand prix motorcycle racing in the late 1950s with MV Agusta before switching to cars. Impressed in his debut F1 season for Lotus in 1960, then hit the big time with Ferrari in 1963. Went into the final race of 1964 in a three-way battle for the championship with Clark and Hill, emerging the winner after Clark's Lotus sprang an oil leak and Hill's BRM was punted off by Bandini's Ferrari. Surtees fell out with Ferrari manager Eugenio Dragoni and left the team to race for Honda. Ultimately he ran his own F1 outfit, though the results never matched the effort and the team folded in 1978. Much later, Surtees became a regular at historic events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed, demonstrating priceless vintage grand prix cars for Mercedes-Benz, and supported his son Henry's racing efforts. Sadly Henry was killed in a freak accident in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch in July 2009.
Jackie Stewart (1969, 1971, 1973) As outgoing and opinionated as his friend and compatriot Jim Clark was quiet and reserved, Stewart was the most professional and the most successful driver of his generation. Served his F1 apprenticeship alongside Graham Hill at BRM, taking on the role of team leader when Hill left for Lotus, then joined Ken Tyrrell's new team where he would go on to win three titles and set a record for the number of grand prix wins by a driver. Stewart made the decision to retire part-way through the 1973 season, during which he wrapped up his third world championship while Lotus pair Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson took points off each other. Stewart was a tireless campaigner for driver safety, who saw many friends and colleagues killed - including his Tyrrell team-mate Francois Cevert. With son Paul, he established his own racing team which became an F1 grand prix winner.
James Hunt (1976) A larger-than-life character in the Hawthorn mould, Hunt 'the Shunt' was a hard charger who lacked the cool calculation of Stewart or the finesse of Clark, but on his day he was a match for any of his contemporaries. Hunt came to F1 with the knockabout Hesketh team, which the rest of the paddock took a little more seriously when Hunt won the Dutch GP in 1975. When Hesketh folded Hunt found a vacant seat at McLaren which gave him the chance to challenge for the championship in 1976. Ferrari's Niki Lauda led the way until the Nurburgring crash which almost killed him. While Lauda convalesced Hunt picked up 21 points in three races, and the championship went down to the final race in Japan. There, in pouring rain, Lauda parked his Ferrari saying the conditions were too bad to race while Hunt splashed round to third place to take the title. Hunt remained with McLaren for another two years, his motivation gradually waning, then after a desultory half season with Wolf he suddenly retired. He became a TV pundit, commentating alongside Murray Walker for the BBC. His sudden death from a heart attack in 1993, at the age of just 45, robbed F1 of one of its biggest characters.
Nigel Mansell (1992) For years Britain’s biggest hope in F1 but, despite his inexhaustible grit and drive, for a while it seemed as though the man the tifosi had nicknamed Il Leone (‘the lion’) would leave F1 without a championship victory. Robbed by a tyre failure in 1986 and by a combination of Nelson Piquet’s consistency and a late-season qualifying accident in 1987, Mansell finally took the crown in 1992 with a Williams car which was clearly superior to the opposition. He then moved to IndyCar racing and became champion there in 1993, returning briefly to F1 for Williams and McLaren before hanging up his helmet. He remains, statistically, Britain’s most successful F1 driver.
Damon Hill (1996) The only world champion son of a world champion father, Damon began his motorsport career on bikes. After switching to cars he progressed through the lower formulae steadily, rather than explosively, but eventually landed a F1 race seat at Brabham, in the team's twilight years, and a testing role with Williams. He was promoted to a Williams race seat in 1993, then assumed the role of team leader following the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994. Hill narrowly lost the world title to Michael Schumacher that year and again in 1995, then won eight races and the title in 1996 - despite which Williams informed him his services were no longer required! Endured an uncompetitive season with Arrows then gave Jordan their maiden GP win at Spa in 1998. Since retiring from driving in 1999 Hill has remained active in the sport, as an occasional commentator and latterly as president of the BRDC, which runs Silverstone.
Lewis Hamilton (2008) Hamilton's debut was most extraordinary in the history of F1. Third place in his first race, second in his next four, then a pair of victories and a comfortable lead in the championship by the middle of the season. After battles on and off track with his McLaren team mate Fernando Alonso, Hamilton lost the title by a single point to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen. The following year Hamilton was McLaren team leader and took on both Ferraris, winning the title at the last possible moment - and by a single point. The youngest ever world champion, Hamilton has matured in his first three seasons and remains one of the hottest properties in the F1 paddock. Who would bet against him adding his name to the champions list again?
The Nearly Man:
Graham Hill and Jim Clark both had a chance to win in 1964, Nigel Mansell in 1987, Damon Hill in 1994 and 1995, and Lewis Hamilton in 2007 - but all of them would win championships later in their careers. Stirling Moss also came close to winning the title, on several occasions: he was second to Juan Manuel Fangio in 1955, 1956 and 1957, and to Mike Hawthorn in 1958.
Moss missed by the narrowest margin in '58: it was his appeal to the stewards which saw a disqualified Hawthorn reinstated at the Portuguese Grand Prix, and Hawthorn went on to win the title by only a point.
Though he retired from F1 in 1962, Sir Stirling Moss remains one of the most famous drivers in the history of the sport and he is widely regarded as the best driver never to be crowned World Champion.
Images: Ford, Renault, Lothar Spurzem