Monday, September 14, 2009
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In Formula One nice guys sometimes do finish 1st

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[September 14, 2009]  MONZA, Italy (AP) -- Don't be deceived by the blood-red nail polish and twinkly silver shoes. Fashion model Jessica Michibata has been around Formula One long enough to become as cutthroat as anyone when it comes to rooting for her man -- in her case, boyfriend Jenson Button, quite possibly F1's next world champion.

InsuranceButton, of course, would say it's still way too early to hand him the championship title. But it is getting closer. With his second-place finish Sunday at Monza, F1's fastest circuit, Button took a big step toward what would be far and away the crowning moment in a long career strewn with disappointments.

All those years driving cars too slow to win. All those races where the likes of Ferrari, McLaren and Renault sped off with the crown. It wasn't lack of talent, his smooth driving style has always been admired, but rather not having winning wheels. In nine seasons, Button had just one Grand Prix win. Then, this year and in the unlikeliest of circumstances, his fortunes dramatically changed.

After Monza, the reigning champion, Lewis Hamilton, can definitively be counted out.


Michibata, watching the Italian Grand Prix on television in the Brawn team motor home behind the pit lane, let out a piercing "Yes!" when Hamilton, pushing his McLaren to the limit and beyond to catch Button, spun out on the last lap. It is game over for him.

Same goes for Kimi Raikkonen. Button is too far ahead of the unflappable Finn for the Ferrari driver to catch him now.

And the tough talk from the Red Bull team's pairing of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber can pretty much be discounted. Both trail Button by more than 25 points, with just four races left, and it will take minor miracles for them to claw their way back.

Which basically leaves his teammate Rubens Barrichello, who won at Monza, as Button's biggest threat. The Brit with the playboy reputation versus the Brazilian who, as a boy, would jump the fences of the Interlagos circuit near his home to watch races.

The advantage is clearly with Button. His 14-point lead over Barrichello isn't impregnable. Were Button to crash and Barrichello to win the next race in Singapore, on Sept. 27, for instance, then F1 will have a real nail-biter on its hands. But for the moment, it is quite a cushion, especially since they are driving the same cars, meaning neither has a huge competitive advantage over the other.

It's very tough to say which of these drivers deserves to win the championship more. The heart says Barrichello, and not just because he's one of the friendlier souls in the harsh world of F1. Previously, as a racer for Ferrari, he had to swallow his pride and be No. 2 to the all-consuming Michael Schumacher, even once infamously handing him victory on orders from the team.

Now that Barrichello is racing to win -- showing "my true me" as he says -- it would be gratifying to see him become Brazil's first world champion since his mentor, the late Ayrton Senna, retained the title in 1991.

But the head says that Button is too experienced and too composed to crack now. Pre-race murmurings that Button might be wavering mentally as the championship edges closer proved at Monza to be just that -- talk. He barely put a wheel wrong on this Italian weekend. The way he squeezed past McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen on the first lap showed poise, not nerves.

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"If I hadn't made that move I probably would have finished third or fourth. I had to make it stick and I did," he said later.

"The talk of pressure never came out of my mouth," Button added. "Why shouldn't I be positive? I've got a 14-point lead with four races to go."

Both Barrichello and Button know how lucky they are to be here. Honda, struggling with the recession like all auto makers, pulled the plug on the team at the end of last season. Through the winter, Button and Barrichello did not know if they'd have a ride this season. But the team boss, Ross Brawn, brought the team back to life, gave it his name and, to everyone's surprise, produced a car that immediately proved to be a winner. In preseason tests, both drivers got their first inkling that this, finally, might be their year.

"I remember like it was yesterday," Barrichello said Sunday. "Jenson did the first four laps in the car and I went to ask him and he said, 'It's a great car.' And I will never forget that. ... I said, 'Get the hell out of there, I want to drive!'"

[Associated Press; By JOHN LEICESTER]

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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