“15 years and no podi­ums? It’s a pain in the ARSE!”

BUT­TON ON SIL­VER­STONE

F1 Racing - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS AN­THONY ROWL­IN­SON PIC­TURES ADRIAN MY­ERS

This in­ter­view might never have hap­pened.

Un­likely though it seems, given the sense of per­ma­nence sur­round­ing Jen­son But­ton’s pres­ence at McLaren – 102 races and count­ing – his F1 ca­reer looked to be over at the end of 2014.

Af­ter ve sea­sons with the team that had be­come his spir­i­tual home, eight wins, a sack­load of points and a rep­u­ta­tion as F1’s classi­est op­er­a­tor, time was about to be called, it ap­peared, by Ron Dennis, McLaren CEO and chair­man.

You’ll re­call that the mood was tur­bu­lent at McLaren last year, fol­low­ing Dennis’s re­turn to a po­si­tion of ex­ec­u­tive inuence back in Jan­uary 2014. Barely a month af­ter that bomb­shell, Eric Boul­lier joined from Lo­tus in the role of rac­ing di­rec­tor. Myr­iad fur­ther per­son­nel changes fol­lowed, as part of an ex­ten­sive (and on­go­ing) in­ter­nal re­struc­ture. Then, last Au­gust, for­mer team prin­ci­pal Martin Whit­marsh left, af­ter 24 years’ ser­vice. There was a change of en­gine part­ner to man­age, too – a signicant one, with for­mer ally Honda back at the bulk­head in Mercedes’ stead, mark­ing the end of a re­la­tion­ship that stretched back to 1995.

McLaren’s tec­tonic plates were surely shift­ing, and it seemed that the ca­reer of Jen­son But­ton, one of Bri­tain’s most suc­cess­ful and widely re­spected rac­ing driv­ers, might fall through the cracks, as the team re­set and re­shaped.

With Fer­nando Alonso’s ser­vices pri­vately se­cured for 2015, the choice be­ing made be­hind the mir­ror-shade ex­te­rior of the McLaren Tech­nol­ogy Cen­tre was be­tween JB and their tal­ented 2014 rookie Kevin Mag­nussen. The cards fell Jen­son’s way, but only af­ter an un­seemly de­lay. Some­one close to the ne­go­ti­a­tions mem­o­rably de­scribed Jen­son’s po­si­tion, as he waited for a de­ci­sion, thus:

It was one of the most uned­i­fy­ing pe­ri­ods in an F1 ca­reer that ex­tends back to rst tests in 1999, but But­ton weath­ered it, as he has weath­ered so many other storms over 16 sea­sons. From the troughs of a dire Benet­ton-Re­nault back in 2001 ( Au­tosport mag­a­zine called it Jen­son’s “year of hell”), through two woe­ful Honda fac­tory team years in 2007-8, to the un­for­get­table epiphany of his 2009 ti­tle with Brawn, Jen­son has seen it all. And, like the hard­ened Iron­man com­peti­tor he has be­come, he has found ways to en­dure, pre­vail and sur­vive – not sim­ply for sur­vival’s sake, rather be­cause he be­lieves that at 35

“Ron’s like a kid fo­cus­ing the sun into a ‘death ray’ with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass – and Jen­son’s the in­sect in the beam.”

“With a team-mate like that, it’s not just about try­ing to do the best job you can in your car against the rest of the field. You have your team-mate to judge your­self against. It’s a great po­si­tion be in and it’s ex­actly what I want at this stage. It keeps me mas­sively mo­ti­vated.”

and with 272 grands prix notched up, he still has a role to play as a top-line F1 driver with a lead­ing team. He gives short shrift to any who might doubt his am­bi­tion: “I have a team-mate along­side me who’s re­garded as one of the best in F1 history,” he says with a steely grin.

Up against Alonso, how could Jen­son be any­thing but mo­ti­vated if he wants to pro­long his F1 ca­reer? Fer­nando is a fe­ro­cious, po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal, in­tent on achiev­ing the third ti­tle he be­lieves one of his tal­ent should at­tain.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, But­ton as­sesses him­self and his fel­low F1 lion as re­spect­ful of each other’s abil­i­ties – but not close: “I haven’t spent much time with Fer­nando,” says Jen­son. “Last year I saw him a cou­ple of times in a dark club some­where where we had some fun. Apart from that I don’t see him away from rac­ing, even though we have sim­i­lar in­ter­ests.”

They also have in­ter­twined F1 his­to­ries: in 2001 But­ton was a Benet­ton racer, while Fer­nando was the team’s tester. Then, by 2003, Alonso had taken But­ton’s Re­nault drive and won his rst race.

It took Jen­son another three sea­sons to win his rst GP, by which time Alonso was well on

the way to a sec­ond ti­tle. And now, post-Re­nault, post-Honda, post-Brawn, post-Fer­rari, they are re­united, hav­ing had, in Jen­son’s view, “Great races to­gether and some pretty spe­cial times.”

In­trigu­ingly But­ton rates Alonso as the team-mate he al­ways wished he could have had: “You know which team-mate you would like in F1,” he says, “and which would be in­ter­est­ing. And of cur­rent F1 driv­ers, it’s al­ways been Fer­nando.”

We can re­visit that as­sess­ment once Jen­son’s had a sea­son head-to-head with F1’s doughti­est com­peti­tor. But if Jen­son plays to his own strengths, he’ll surely be a strong ri­val for McLaren in-house supremacy. He has han­dled sev­eral quick, prickly team-mates over the years – from Ralf Schu­macher, to Jac­ques Vil­leneuve to Rubens Bar­richello… not to men­tion Lewis Hamil­ton for three sea­sons. And he out­pointed Lewis, even if, in terms of wins and poles (eight wins and one pole for Jen­son, ver­sus Lewis’s ten wins and nine poles) Lewis had JB beat.

McLaren rac­ing di­rec­tor Eric Boul­lier is rel­ish­ing the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween his cham­pion pair, reect­ing that But­ton, per­haps, is a driver who needs the strong­est pos­si­ble in­tra-team ri­valry to give his ab­so­lute best: “Maybe he is one of these, yes. I think it’s an ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion – maybe mo­ti­va­tion is the wrong word – but maybe Fer­nando be­ing here forces Jen­son to have ex­tra fo­cus, which makes him great.

“For sure he is a top driver,” Boul­lier adds, “and like any driver, when your team-mate gives you a hard time, there is some­thing spe­cial. And there is denitely a re­spect be­tween them. I hope by the end of this year to have the kind of prob­lems Toto is hav­ing with Nico and Lewis!”

It’ll take a whole lot of lap-time gain be­fore McLaren run at Merc-trou­bling pace, how­ever. At the Span­ish GP, the fastest lap was set by Hamil­ton’s Merc W06: a 1m 28.270s; the fastest McLaren race lap (tenth over­all) was But­ton’s 1m 31.162s. In qual­i­fy­ing, Merc’s best – Nico Ros­berg’s pole time – was a 1m 24.681s; Alonso recorded a 1m 27.760s for P13. Av­er­aged out, those two bench­marks show a decit to fron­trun­ning pace of 2.9855s and, how­ever much of that may be at­trib­uted to a cur­rently gut­less Honda RA615H (ap­prox­i­mately 100bhp off the lead­ing Mercedes PU106B Hy­brid) and how­ever much to the aero-chas­sis combo, they equate to McLaren be­ing F1’s sev­enth-fastest squad: de­mean­ing for a team of such pedi­gree.

Yet But­ton, who would be for­given drooped shoul­ders at the prospect of ped­alling yet another dud (see also Benet­ton 2001, Honda 2007-08, McLaren 2013-14) is not down­beat. Rea­son? The team’s per­for­mance curve is up­ward and he can see gains be­ing made:

But­ton reck­ons that gains are be­ing found ev­ery­where and he’s been em­bold­ened by the knowl­edge that his in­puts into the team’s en­gi­neer­ing di­rec­tion are help­ing boost per­for­mance. “It makes you feel pretty good about your­self, know­ing that you’re in­volved with those im­prove­ments and that you have di­rected the team,” he says. “It gets you ex­cited about go­ing to the next race be­cause you know there’s more on the way. It means you can look at where you may pos­si­bly end up at that race – which team can you pick off at that race week­end to ght your way closer to the front.”

It makes this sec­ond Honda chap­ter very dif­fer­ent to the wilder­ness years of But­ton’s rst spell with the Big H. In the last two sea­sons of its fac­tory ef­fort from 2007-08, Honda net­ted just 20 points – a thin haul that led to the can­ning of the F1 pro­gramme at the end of 2008. That pe­riod was so dulling for his com­pet­i­tive sen­si­bil­i­ties, But­ton re­calls, it drove him to nd fresh stim­u­lus, namely triathlon.

Eight years on, But­ton is now a se­ri­ous com­peti­tor in this par­al­lel arena, and in­tends triathlons to be a large part of his post-F1 ex­is­tence. “I loved triathlons when I started,” he says, “and I’ve been more and more com­pet­i­tive ever since. F1 is such a team sport, whereas I wanted to do some­thing that is just per­sonal. It helps me in the car. The pain you go through and the emo­tions you go through in a long-dis­tance race is just… the ups and downs you have… You go through so many dif­fer­ent peaks and troughs it’s a bit like an F1 sea­son re­ally, in one race.”

So even on his ‘days off’ But­ton’s life re­volves around elite-level sport. Ac­cord­ing to his race engi­neer Tom Stal­lard, a Bri­tish row­ing Olympian who won a sil­ver medal in the men’s eight at the 2008 Games, that con­tin­ues to en­dow But­ton with a key com­pet­i­tive edge.

“Jen­son is lucky be­cause for him, tness is what he does in his down time,” Stal­lard says. “Most of the other driv­ers do tness be­cause they need to for F1, but for Jen­son that’s his hobby. It’s some­thing we take for granted. It means his weight is com­pletely un­der con­trol. It means you know when you go some­where like Sin­ga­pore or Malaysia he is go­ing to be at an ad­van­tage in the sec­ond half of the race.”

Be­yond that, But­ton and Stal­lard, who re­placed Dave Rob­son as race engi­neer in July 2014, share what might be termed ‘ath­lete pa­tois’. “I’ve worked in F1 since 2008,” Stal­lard says, “not that long com­pared to some, but I worked in elite sport for eight years be­fore that, so I have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence in that re­spect. What that means is that we have an un­der­stand­ing of cer­tain things – psy­chol­ogy if you like.”

Stal­lard cites the ex­am­ple of qual­i­fy­ing pres­sures, when a choice has to be made be­tween the rst run on the prime or the op­tion, then as­sess­ing the ‘feel’ on the prime and then what to do if it’s not quick. “Now,” he says, “you have one chance on the op­tion, and un­der­stand­ing and dis­cussing how you will ad­dress psy­cho­log­i­cal sit­u­a­tions that will ap­proach you through­out the week­end and un­der­stand­ing how it will feel for the race, in qual­i­fy­ing, in prac­tice… is a benet. It’s not one specic thing – it just ex­ists.”

Even this ‘se­cret weapon’ is un­likely, though, to give But­ton any hope of a de­cent nish at his home race this year and his fail­ure to stand on the Bri­tish GP podium re­mains a frus­tra­tion for him. In the past 15 starts, his best nishes are a trio of fourths in 2004, ’10 and last year.

“I would love to win it,” he ad­mits, gri­mac­ing. “I would love even to get on the podium! It’s a pain in the arse, re­ally, be­cause it’s my home grand prix and it’s the one where I get the most sup­port. It’s mostly just from bad luck. In 2011 we easily had a podium com­ing our way and we had a wheel fall off. Last year I was about ve inches away from get­ting a podium be­hind Ric­cia­rdo. So it’s just like, that hurts.”

Not that he’ll let it get him down. Through fair weather and foul But­ton has been a con­stant, classy pres­ence in F1 for a gen­er­a­tion and with that ‘world cham­pion’ brand be­ing his in per­pe­tu­ity, he’s now philo­soph­i­cal about the

“Test­ing was chal­leng­ing be­cause we spent a lot of time sit­ting in the mo­torhome not do­ing any­thing. No­body wants to fin­ish last at the

first race. But then you see the im­prove­ment that comes ev­ery race – it’s a

mas­sive step.”

sport’s vi­cis­si­tudes. “I’m nearer to the end of my ca­reer than to the be­gin­ning,” he ad­mits, “and you have days af­ter a run of bad races when you think: ‘What the hell am I do­ing?’ But I don’t think you can plan your re­tire­ment – I haven’t. I take ev­ery day as it comes and try to en­joy ev­ery race as much as I can. That’s the best way to be – and if I get to the point where I’m not en­joy­ing ev­ery mo­ment, then that’s the time when I’ll think, ‘This isn’t right for me any more.’”

“I’m nearer to the end of my ca­reer than to the be­gin­ning. But I don’t think you can plan your re­tire­ment – I haven’t”

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