F1 Rac­ing heads over to the im­pres­sive grounds of Lu­ton Hoo to join Jen­son But­ton at his own char­ity triathlon event


A sunny, peace­ful Satur­day in the coun­try­side. Or not.

Ducks glide across the sur­face of Lu­ton Hoo’s for­mal lake obliv­i­ous to the riot of splash­ing that’s about to oc­cur. Every so of­ten a pas­sen­ger jet – Ryanair, Monarch, Easy-Jet for the most part – rises above the tree­line from nearby Lu­ton Air­port, con­vey­ing hol­i­day­mak­ers thither to dis­tant hori­zons. If those pas­sen­gers were to peek out of the port win­dows, they might espy a gath­er­ing of brightly coloured tents near the el­e­gant coun­try house be­low – but what, they might won­der, is go­ing on?

Jen­son But­ton is one of the few F1 driv­ers to op­er­ate a char­i­ta­ble trust, and cer­tainly the only one to run an an­nual triathlon to raise funds for good causes. And he’s an ever so slightly low-key pres­ence here to­day, at the triathlon bear­ing his name, set in the ram­bling es­tate of a man­sion built by the third Earl of Bute, Prime Min­is­ter un­der Ge­orge III, and re­mod­elled un­der var­i­ous sub­se­quent own­ers into a fas­ci­nat­ing ar­chi­tec­tural hodge-podge.

Spec­ta­tors are lim­ited to en­trants’ fam­ily and friends, to dis­suade gate­crash­ing au­to­graph hun­ters. And, but for the pro­lif­er­a­tion of But­ton lo­gos, and an open-top McLaren 650S and an F1 car (painted 2014-spec sil­ver and la­belled ‘MP429’, though spot­ters will out it as an MP4-24) on static dis­play, you could be stand­ing in the ‘event vil­lage’ of pretty much any com­pact, fun sport­ing oc­ca­sion. The en­trants are fo­cused on pick­ing up their race num­bers and ar­rang­ing their chat­tels, the sup­port­ers on stak­ing out the best spec­tat­ing spots or the ideal place for a pic­nic lunch in the shade. Up­beat tunes spill forth from the PA sys­tem as the an­nouncer revs him­self up with a brief run through the day’s sched­ule.

And there’s the man him­self. No vel­vet rope, no Tens­abar­ri­ers, Just Jen­son, smil­ing and chat­ting to a group of friends while he places his bike, towel and run­ning shoes in the rack of the tran­si­tion area, the nexus of the triathlon’s swim/bike/run routes. He’s typ­i­cally self­ef­fac­ing about be­ing the only F1 driver to put this much ef­fort into high-pro­file char­i­ta­ble work:

“I don’t think I am,” he says. “But we’re all in a very lucky po­si­tion, do­ing a job that we love, and in a po­si­tion where we can have a voice on dif­fer­ent things. It’s very easy for me to make peo­ple put their hands in their pock­ets!

“To en­ter this, you had to pledge to raise £500 for Can­cer Re­search and over 400 peo­ple still signed up. So we’ve raised a lot of money and hope­fully it’ll keep grow­ing. Can­cer is some­thing that af­fects every one of us here, ei­ther per­son­ally or through fam­ily and friends.”

Triathlon is a multi-stage dis­ci­pline of bur­geon­ing pop­u­lar­ity that cov­ers a range of in­creas­ingly ter­ri­fy­ing dis­tances: ‘Sprint’ events usu­ally combine a 750-metre swim with a 20km bike ride and a 5km run, while at the other end of the scale, ‘Iron­man’ chal­lenges you with a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and a marathon-dis­tance 26.2-mile run. Jen­son’s triathlon is a hy­brid in which each com­peti­tor races twice, the rst be­ing a qual­i­fy­ing event with a 300-metre swim, 9km ride and 2.5km run; the top 50 nish­ers from each wave then go through to the sprint-dis­tance nal, with the re­main­ing en­trants hav­ing a ‘wooden spoon nal’. Thus the more se­ri­ous ath­letes gun­ning for the £7,000 prize purse don’t trip over those do­ing it purely for ‘fun’.

“Ini­tially it was my idea,” says Jen­son, “be­cause I’ve been into triathlon for a long time. I thought it would be nice to have our own, and hope­fully raise a lot of money for char­ity. But it’s the Sports Part­ner­ship [the agency founded by Jen­son, his man­ager Richard God­dard and PR man James Wil­liamson in 2012] who have done all the work and made it hap­pen.

“It’s amaz­ing – it grows every year in terms of things for peo­ple to do, the at­mos­phere… it’s got kind of a fes­ti­val vibe, rather than a triathlon. We have a band – Duke, a very cool beat­box­ing band – and a bar­be­cue later, and a few other things. There’s a bit of pain with it, of course…

“The thing is with this, it’s a real be­gin­ner’s race – it at­tracts be­gin­ners be­cause it’s such a short dis­tance. But it also at­tracts a few pros be­cause there’s prize money on of­fer. They know it’s a very chilled-out event and that it’s go­ing to be a lot of fun. We’ve got ve or six world cham­pi­ons from dif­fer­ent dis­tances and duathlons. There’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion out there, so do not ex­pect me to nish in the top ten!

“The qual­i­fier is a bit of a cruise but the nal is full on. It’s a lot of pain for about 55 min­utes.”

A stroll around the tran­si­tion area shows the dif­fer­ing lev­els of the com­peti­tors. Jen­son’s Spe­cial­ized S-Works Shiv bi­cy­cle is a full-on car­bon­fi­bre aero ma­chine with a ra­zor-blade sad­dle, tube­less Con­ti­nen­tal tyres, elec­tron­i­cally ac­tu­ated Shi­mano gears, aero han­dle­bars, and a power me­ter set into the cranks. Its Enve

“I do triathlons for fun. Men­tally it helps me so much with rac­ing when I go through dif­fi­cult times” Jen­son But­ton

car­bon wheels were de­signed by for­mer F1 aero­dy­nam­i­cist Si­mon Smart in one of the Mercedes wind­tun­nels, and their quick-re­lease skew­ers are pre­cisely aligned in con­form­ity with the Velom­i­nati cy­cling web­site’s Rule 41. A few me­tres fur­ther down is an el­derly Kona moun­tain bike with a rust­ing front sus­pen­sion fork and knob­bly tyres; fur­ther still, a hy­brid with a lug­gage rack, mud­guards and a bell.

Jen­son be­gan to take tness se­ri­ously in his mid-20s, and started com­pet­ing in triathlons as a means of scratch­ing his com­pet­i­tive itch and keep­ing him­self sharp when his ca­reer was in the dol­drums at Honda dur­ing the lean years of 2007 and 2008. Week in, week out, he had to nd a way of sus­tain­ing mo­ti­va­tion when his race cars were ut­terly hope­less.

“I do triathlons purely for fun,” he says, “but when times are a lit­tle bit more dif­fi­cult, some­times it’s im­por­tant to have a hobby to take your mind off it. To re­fo­cus, if you like, and to do the tness. Men­tally it helps me so much with rac­ing when I go through dif­fi­cult times.

“I still have a beer some­times. You’ve got to have a bal­ance. But when I’m train­ing I’m very se­ri­ous about it. I have a sep­a­rate pro­gramme that Mikey [Col­lier, his trainer] sets out for me. It’s hard, be­cause I’m do­ing a lot of hours, but I’m re­ally en­joy­ing it and it helps me not just phys­i­cally, but also men­tally, for rac­ing.”

As the rst waves of com­peti­tors thrash through the lake, scat­ter­ing the ducks to the four corners, you see rst-hand the great dif­fer­ence in abil­i­ties and won­der how much time the mid­dling swim­mers can pull back on the run and bike legs; and then, as they haul them­selves out of the wa­ter and jog along the mat, pulling off sec­tions of wet­suit, it’s strik­ing how much time can be gained or lost through ef­fi­ciency in the tran­si­tion, just like an F1 pit­stop. The fron­trun­ners are out, changed and clip­ping into their ped­als, while others are still mak­ing stately progress with the breast­stroke in the lake.

“The events I nor­mally do, half-Iron­man dis­tances, are done at a lower heart rate – the sort of zone you’d be in to drive a race car” Jen­son But­ton

A glance at the en­try list re­veals some big names: dou­ble cham­pion Will Clarke; Com­mon­wealth Games hope­fuls Cameron and Natalie Milne; Euro­pean cham­pion Danny Rus­sell; dou­ble Iron­man world cham­pion Chris McCor­mack; Bri­tish cham­pion Emma Pal­lant; and world duathlon cham­pion Katie Hewi­son. The elite ath­letes take the elim­i­na­tor round at a can­ter, and Jen­son jogs across the nish line in a group of com­peti­tors all chat­ting to one an­other.

Be­sides do­ing good work for char­ity, what benets does Jen­son de­rive from an event such as this? For the mod­ern, phys­i­cally op­ti­mised and fo­cused F1 driver, be­ing fit enough to drive isn’t about fit­ness per se – be­ing able to run a mile, say, with­out break­ing a sweat – but about specifics, about de­vel­op­ing stam­ina and strength while car­ry­ing no un­nec­es­sary mus­cle mass.

“This is a short dis­tance,” he says, “where your heart rate is through the roof. It’s not the sort of train­ing I’d do for F1. But the events I nor­mally do, half-Iron­man dis­tances – four-hour races – are dif­fer­ent. They’re done at a lower heart rate – the sort of zone you’d be in to drive a race car. If you can do hours of that, when you get in a race car it’s easy to stay re­laxed and fo­cused, then every lap of the race can be 100 per cent.”

As the nal­ists plunge into the lake, the sun is piti­lessly hot. F1 Rac­ing makes its way up the cy­cle course to a point about 400 me­tres af­ter the exit of the tran­si­tion, where the road sur­face changes to a more rough tex­ture as well as an­gling up into a sharper in­cline. It’s here that the com­peti­tors who have pushed them­selves into the red zone too soon will start to suffer.

And they do suffer. In the men’s nal, riders on road bikes are pass­ing those on TT bikes who are stub­bornly stay­ing in the aero crouch. One botches his down­shift, grinds to a halt, just about un­clips from the ped­als with­out fall­ing off, then strug­gles to get go­ing again. This is the kind of tech­ni­cal course where the straight­line aero­dy­namic ad­van­tages of TT bikes are over­turned by their higher weight, more chal­leng­ing rider er­gonomics and poor ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity. Jen­son passes us in 20th place, grit­ting his teeth as the road ramps up.

We re­turn to the ‘vil­lage’. It’s 30 min­utes be­fore Jen­son comes through for the run. What’s hap­pened? The ride is his favoured event… The women’s nal came down to a com­fort­able 18-sec­ond vic­tory for Emma Pal­lant over Katie Hewi­son, but it’s a sprint nish in the men’s nal, with Will Clarke just edg­ing out David Bishop. Jen­son ar­rives, high-fiv­ing spec­ta­tors, in 19th, ten min­utes down on the win­ners.

“I got a punc­ture just out­side the hall,” he says, “and had to aban­don the bike and run back.”

So far as triathlons are con­cerned, for Jen­son it’s the tak­ing part that mat­ters rather than the win­ning. It’s the op­po­site of F1, un­der the watch­ful eye of Ron Den­nis. Ron, you imag­ine, would be an un­likely guest at an event like this; the fa­mously fas­tid­i­ous McLaren boss would no doubt nd the par­tial naked­ness, and the smell of sweat and Deep Heat, highly sub-op­ti­mal.

“We’ve never talked about it,” laughs Jen­son. “But Ron likes his driv­ers to be fit and fo­cused on win­ning grands prix, and I’m def­i­nitely that…”

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