Bad-luck Button does it again at Australian GP
Monty Python was famous among other things for a satirical sketch about the machine that goes ping!
Jenson Button, the snake-bitten Formula One driver, is becoming infamous among other things for having the machine that goes foom!
While the Pythons were trying to get laughs by lampooning the U.K. medical establishment, it's unlikely Button's latest racing failure, on the last lap of Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, was intended to earn giggles. Indeed, it's probable that the winless streak it extended impresses him as anything but funny.
It's 103 races now, Button's entire career, and the only longer wait in F1 history for a sip of victory champagne was Rubens Barrichello's seemingly eternal 124-start ordeal. This must be vexing in the extreme for a driver who entered Formula One in a blaze of hype in 2000 and was the subject of an expensive and rancorous dispute regarding the privilege of his services for this season.
Sunday's entries into Button's career catalogue of frustration included difficulty in warming his tires during the race's four safety car periods, causing him to be passed twice during restarts, as well as the fiery disintegration of his Honda's engine on the last corners of the final lap, presenting fourth place to Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella.
"It's disappointing to end the weekend as we did," Button said. "The way the race panned out with the safety cars left me struggling for grip after each restart."
Regarding his eventual demise, he said he "could feel that something was wrong with the engine in Turn 13 and it was a difficult way to end the race after such a long, hard battle."
The result was more of the same for a driver who's made an irksome habit of disappointing on race day whatever his grid position. Button finished worse than his qualifying position a dozen times out of last year's 17 races and failed to improve on his starting spot in 11 of 18 events in 2004. He had bettered his grid spot in final race results less than half the time in his career entering this season and is 0-for-3 to date in 2006. You'd say he was flattering to deceive if it wasn't for his record of mechanical failures.
Promising grid positions earned on Saturday have tended to end in technical malfunctions throughout his career. Last year's Malaysian and Bahrain GPs, the 2004 races in the U.S. and Brazil and more events with points-possible starting positions than Button might like to recall have resulted in the same manner of retirement: Foom!
The evidence? Qualified fourth at 2004 U.S. Grand Prix; Foom! goes the gearbox. Fifth on the grid at the 2004 Brazilian GP; Foom! goes the engine after three laps. In the 2003 Italian GP, Button qualified seventh; gearbox failure sent him home early. Starting sixth at the 2000 U.S. GP; you guessed it. Foom! went the motor.
It even seems like beginning a race at or near the front of the field is something of a curse for Button. Starting first at last year's Canadian GP, he exited on lap 47 after an accident and a less than stellar performance.
A second-place result at the 2005 San Marino GP from third on the grid was disallowed after it was found that his BAR-Honda team violated F1 rules regarding his car's weight, which brought a two-race ban from competition.
Button, in fact, seems a special target of the gods of racing fortune. He retired from third place in the 2002 Malaysian GP when the rear suspension on his Renault failed, robbing him of his first career podium finish. He didn't earn his first front-row starting spot until the 2004 San Marino GP, his 70th career start, where he finished second. It was nearly four full seasons before he led his first competitive lap.
Still, Button was fought over last year as Williams, his first team, attempted to dragoon him into a seat by trying to exercise a clause in his original contract. Team principal Frank Williams eventually reaped a multimillion-dollar bonanza by allowing his former wunderkind to remain with Honda.
The son of a former rallycross driver, Button was well-schooled in the harsh facts of racing life before he burst onto the F1 scene. Still, his experiences must seem excessively punitive these days as that long-awaited, much-delayed maiden win remains tantalizingly and annoyingly out of reach. Perhaps the thing for him to do is to emulate the Monty Python approach: Laugh about it. Being serious doesn't seem to be helping.
Around the paddock
Scott Speed's fine eighth-place finish for Scuderia Toro Rosso, marking the first point for an American driver since 1993, was nullified after race stewards gave him a 25-second penalty for being insufficiently attentive to blue flags requiring him to allow a faster competitor to pass. He was reclassified 11th, gifting the final points-paying position to David Coulthard of Red Bull. Speed was also fined $5,000 for using abusive language toward a competitor. Noteworthy for the home crowd in Australia was the celebration before the race of racing legend Jack Brabham's 80th birthday during a historic display in which he drove a 1966 car bearing his name. Brabham was both a driver and team owner during his career.
Michael Kelley is a contributor to Formula One coverage for ESPN.com