Button surprise favourite at Australian GP

In less than a month, Jenson Button has shifted from the verge of unemployment to race favourite for Sunday’s Formula One season opener in Australia, and the Brawn driver is relishing his remarkable reversal of fortune.

Mechanics of the Brawn GP team work underneath the car to adjust the diffuser on Thursday.

MELBOURNE, Australia — In less than a month, Jenson Button has shifted from the verge of unemployment to race favourite for Sunday’s Formula One season opener in Australia, and the Brawn driver is relishing his remarkable reversal of fortune.

Button has been vaulted into favouritism on the back of the blistering times recorded by F1’s new team in pre-season testing after Ross Brawn completed his takeover of the team formerly owned by Honda, which pulled out of F1 amid the global economic downturn.

Button, the 29-year-old Briton, and Rubens Barrichello were out of a job after the Japanese automaker’s exit from the sport in December and the pair didn’t have a confirmed drive this season until Brawn, the former Honda team principal, confirmed a take over on March 5.

“It’s not a pressure, its a nice feeling,” Button said Thursday about his sudden favouritism. “We are coming here with an open mind. Testing is one thing . . . but in 2006 (Honda) had a quick car in testing and got to the first race and got blown away by Ferrari.

“We will not be slow, but how quick, we will have to see.”

Aside from the doubt about whether its test times get translated into race performance, Brawn must also deal with an ongoing argument over the legality of its bodywork, with rival teams saying it breaches the sport’s new regulations.

Ferrari, BMW, Renault and Red Bull lodged protests Thursday after race stewards approved the design of the rear diffuser and attached bodywork on the cars of Williams, Toyota and Brawn. A hearing was to be held later in the day.

New F1 regulations limit the size of the diffuser, and the protesting teams say Williams, Toyota and Brawn have bent the rules by using bodywork to effectively increase its size.

While that argument rages in the lead-up to Sunday’s race in Melbourne, Brawn was revelling in the limelight of its pre-race favouritism, which in itself is reward for the team’s development work through the off-season despite doubts about whether it would even be on the grid.

Button congratulated the technicians and backroom staff for their dedication in the face of such adversity.

“They knew they were doing a good job and we can see that,” Button said. “They have really put their heart and soul into developing a car for this year.

“We should be the underdogs, being a private team with a customer engine, but looking at the testing times, we are not.”

The traditional powers of the sport such as Ferrari and McLaren are already getting themselves accustomed to the idea of trailing in Brawn’s wake, talking down their chances of success on Sunday.

“The picture from the test is Brawn is better than anybody, so maybe we will fight each other for third place. I hope not,” Ferrari’s Felipe Massa said.

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