“15 years and no podiums? It’s a pain in the ARSE!”
BUTTON ON SILVERSTONE
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 inuence 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 signicant 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, reecting 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 denitely 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 decit 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 benet. It’s not one specic 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
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”