What’s Still Pushing Jenson’s Buttons?
Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button is still in the fast lane. Stuart Weir reveals all.
Jenson Button is a member of an exclusive club, one of only 13 men to have been Formula 1 World Champion. In a career lasting 17 years he has driven in 306 Grand Prix, achieving 50 podium finishes and 15 wins. His career started with the Williams team, followed by time with Benetton, Renault, BAR, Honda, Brawn and McLaren. In 2009 he was World Champion. That year Button also finished second to footballer Ryan Giggs in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.
Like so many F1 drivers, Button started in karting at the age of eight, achieving early success before progressing to car racing in Formula Ford and Formula 3, getting his chance in Formula 1 in 2000 with the Williams team. He was clear from an early age about the direction he wanted his life to take, commenting: ‘My school reports always used to point out that my concentration levels were appalling. I never listened in class because I was always daydreaming about racing. I never thought for a moment about doing anything else. There was no guarantee that I’d make a career in it but I never had any plan B.’
He had to wait 6 years for his first F1 win. Wet conditions made the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix a challenging and tactical race. Kimi Raikkonen, who had started on pole, crashed. This meant a safety car had to lead the drivers round as the debris was removed. Button stayed on the track while others took an opportunity for a pitstop. He found himself in second place. When leader, Fernando Alonso, also crashed, it left Button in the lead, which he held until the end. It was a brilliant race, driving his Honda to victory, after starting14th on the grid. He later said of that period: ‘My time at Honda was amazing. Some of my best times in Formula 1, actually. I might not have won races, just one race, but I had a lot of fun. It is such a special feeling to win a Grand Prix.’ He explained that, later in his career, the fun was rather replaced by pressure: ‘When you’re in a car which can win every race, or fight for a win every race, that is pressure.’
At the end of the 2008 season, when Honda stopped their involvement with F1, Ross Brawn, who had been Team Principal at Honda, led a management buy-out of the team to form Brawn GP for the 2009 season, taking with him both drivers, Button and Rubens Barrichello.
The 2009 season could not have started better for Brawn or Button. He was fastest in practice at both the first two Grand Prix – Australian and Malaysian – converting pole position to victory in the races. Third place in China was followed by four straight Grand Prix victories, in Bahrain, Spain, Monaco and Turkey. Incredibly Jenson Button and new Brawn team had won six of the first seven Grand Prix.
Monaco is the iconic race on the calendar, with the street circuit weaving through Monte Carlo, past the casino, round the hairpin, through the tunnel along the harbour, replete with millionaires’ yachts. Starting on pole, he held the lead on the narrow circuit where overtaking is notoriously difficult.
While Button failed to win another Grand Prix, he was in the points, in the top ten, in all but one of the remaining 2009 races to finish as world champion. Asked about his most satisfying moments in his career, he was in no doubt about where to start: ‘Winning the world championship was my greatest achievement. That was always the dream as a kid. Also winning the European championship in karting – I’m sure that sounds crazy to many but it’s such a competitive level. Being announced as a Formula 1 driver was a very special moment. Frank Williams telling me that I was going to be an F1 driver. It wasn’t a dream, it was reality. My first Grand Prix win in 2006 was great. But to choose one, it was definitely clinching the world title in Brazil in 2009. I could call myself the world champion.’
After the 2009 season, Button surprised everyone by leaving the team with which he had won the world title, to join McLaren. There were rumours that the Brawn Mercedes team wanted to change drivers. Button was said to relish being team-mates with another British driver, Lewis Hamilton. Others felt that it was a strange move as Button, despite being world champion, would find himself playing second fiddle to Hamilton. Button won two of his first four Grand Prix with McLaren (Australia and China) but that was his lot for the 2010 season: Sebastian Vettel became world champion that year, with Lewis Hamilton in fourth and Jenson Button fifth.
In 2011 Vettel retained his World Championship title, while Button won three Grand Prix and finished second in the championship overall. In 2012, Button won the first Grand Prix of the season (Australia) and the last (Brazil) but only one in between. The 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix was to be his final Grand Prix victory.
He had to retire from the race after a collision in the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix, which marked the end of his F1 career, aged 37. He commented recently: ‘With hindsight, I think I could probably have raced in Formula 1 for longer. Luckily, when I wanted to retire in 2014, friends told me I should continue for another year and then think about it. In fact, I did another three years and then retired in 2017. That was the right time to retire because my mind wasn’t in it. I think having a year out of the sport and then going back to see how I felt might have been good. I should probably have given it a go because I had opportunities, but didn’t act on them.’
‘Being an F1 driver might be the best job in the world. If you’re in a winning car, everything’s dandy, but a lot of the time you’re not in a winning car. You can have the stress of getting the best out of yourself and out of the car, and still finish ninth. But it’s an amazing job. Every racing driver wants to achieve in Formula 1 and I’m very lucky to have had that opportunity. I stepped away because it was too intense. I’d been racing for 17 years and I needed a breather. I thought I wanted to retire, but then after three years, I realised I wouldn’t mind jumping back in an F1 car. But then it was too late. Everything had moved on. I was racing in other things and pretty much enjoying that as much as F1 anyway.’
Asked to explain what it is like to drive an F1 car, Button expressed it this way: ‘A lot of people think Formula 1 isn’t a sport because everyone drives a car when they go to work in the morning. But we’re pulling up to six G on a corner or during braking, which is almost like being a fighter pilot. So we have to do a lot of work on our neck muscles.
‘To understand the intensity of driving an F1 car, you have to be in it. When you’re driving a 750hp machine at 320km/h, the noise and the vibrations are incredible. The G-force when you take big corners is like someone trying to rip your head off. You hit the brakes, and it feels as if the skin is being pulled off your body. The fast, flowing parts, the high-speed corners, that’s where a Formula 1 car is at its best – changes of direction, pulling high G-forces left and right.’
He added: ‘To drive an F1 car you have to be a little mad. On the morning of a race, there’s a mix of excitement and fear. If it’s a wet track, then it’s worse as you’re not in control most of the time, which is the thing all drivers fear the most.’
2017 meant retirement from F1 but not from racing. In 2018, Button took part in the Le Mans 24-hour race but was unable to finish it because of electronic problems and engine failure. Asked recently if he still had any unfulfilled ambitions in the sport, he immediately answered: ‘Winning Le Mans… There are some exciting new regulations in the Prototype class, but who knows where we stand right now? Companies are struggling, so you don’t know what deals will be out there. I also want to do more off-roading – Extreme E would be fun.’
We may not have seen the last of Jenson Button in a racing car.
Jenson Button on shoes and fashion
Jenson Button might have moved to LA, but he’s just teamed up with Duke+Dexter on an all-British shoe collaboration.
Duke+Dexter has some great ideas, but they also listened to my ideas. So this was a real collaboration, with motor racing as its inspiration. On the one hand, you’ve got a true British company making shoes in the UK; then you’ve got lots of details from motorsport and my history with it – including my number. It’s great working with a true British shoe brand. It’s always fun doing collaborations because people have great ideas: taking people from two different walks of life and bringing the ideas together to produce something which is fun and which hopefully people will want to wear for every occasion.
My favourite pair in the collaboration is the trainers. Just because I’d wear them more often. But I do like dressing up and, when I do, I tend to wear black. I like the Chelsea boots because they’re black, but they’ve also got a nice bit of detail.
I’ve been in the public eye since I was very young, so I’ve always taken an interest in how I dress. When I’m casual, I’m very casual – white t-shirt and jeans – but when I go to an event, I put on a good suit. It makes a difference and I like to look dapper.