It does not rain much at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit but there is a strong feeling that everyone could be on full wets this weekend.
It will, Jenson Button has warned us, be emotional, even lachrymose. After being with us the entire century so far, one of the most popular of champions, and a sublimely talented one too, will – alongside Felipe Massa – drive his final Formula One race on Sunday.
Next year his McLaren seat will go to Stoffel Vandoorne, who for some time had been threatening to be F1’s new big thing before being usurped by the sensational Max Verstappen.
This is not, McLaren claim, the end for Button. He will remain involved with the team, as an ambassador and reserve driver, and may even – it has been suggested – make a post-sabbatical return in 2018. Forget that. It is about as likely as Nigel Mansell or Damon Hill staging a comeback. So instead of wistfully and wastefully hoping for more, we should reflect on the treasures he has already placed before us.
The highlight, of course, is the world title he won with Ross Brawn in 2009, when he was finally allowed to show what he could do with a competitive car. Button feared he was without a drive when Honda pulled out of the sport at the end of the previous year. Instead he won six of the first seven races of the season. The Briton did not triumph again in the 10 remaining rounds but had built up a virtually unassailable position by June.
My favourite Button moment is that charge from last to first to win the Canadian Grand Prix in 2011. At the end of the race in Montreal the leader Sebastian Vettel twitched and made the mistake that allowed Button through. But it was the McLaren driver’s sensational progress through the field that had put the reigning world champion under so much pressure.
In the media centre we were feeling the heat ourselves; because this was a four-hour race, due to deadline demands, most of us had our reports half-written before it became clear that Button might actually win.
His own highlight out of his 15 victories came in Japan the same year. “Suzuka is my favourite track without any doubt,” Button said. “It’s a mega challenge. There is the thrill of the Esses and the Degner curve – no other circuit has the same combination of corners.”
Other drives that stand out are his fourth place in Malaysia in 2002, when he was under some pressure, his second in Germany in 2004, when he started 13th, his first victory in Hungary in 2006 and his victory in China with McLaren in 2010, when many had questioned his wisdom in going head to head with the faster Lewis Hamilton.
It is with some pride that Button reminds people that in their three seasons together at McLaren he outscored Hamilton overall, though of course the reigning world champion had an awful 2011.
Greatness eluded Button. He cannot be counted among the top 10 all-time champions – in all honesty he would not make the leading 20. He has never possessed that ability to wrestle a poor car to over-achievement. But when everything is aligned he is very quick indeed, with a natural poise, style and a mastery of wet conditions that few drivers can match. It is not for nothing that he admires Alain Prost so deeply.
Even now, when his means of transport is up to it, Button is a reliable gatherer of points and a driver who can be trusted to bring his car home, even when surrounded by mayhem. And although the 36-year-old relishes the cut and thrust of battle, he has always been, essentially, a fair driver.
As he prepared for Abu Dhabi this weekend, Button said: “I’m really looking forward to this weekend, and have been for a few races now. It marks a very special chapter in my life and I’ll have my friends and some of my family out in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s going to be a hugely emotional weekend and I hope with the support of the fans, the team and the people that are closest to me, we can go out there and give it our absolute maximum and enjoy the weekend.”
He added: “It’s not the end of my career with McLaren-Honda, but it’s the start of a new phase that I’m incredibly positive about. This race marks the culmination of a huge amount of hard work, dedication and passion for the sport that I love and I’m immensely proud of everything I’ve achieved in the past 17 seasons.”
Retirement is a word he and McLaren would prefer to avoid. But the scenes we will witness on Sunday will tell another story. His beloved father, John, died almost three years ago but in Brazil this month Button’s voice faltered with emotion as he recalled him.
John Button talked to me about his son a few years ago. “You all think Jenson’s just a nice, lovely guy, don’t you?” he maintained. “But he’s not. He’s a tough bastard. He’s a world champion, and you have to be bloody tough to get there.”
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