THE HARDER I TRI
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 benets 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…”