First published in the 2010 British Grand Prix programme
The world is ripe with ambitious youngsters, but the road to the top can be brutal in any sphere of life. That’s particularly true in motor sport, where the ascent is steep and the summit narrow. For every driver that annexes a place on the Grand Prix grid, there are thousands more with similar dreams that will remain forever unfulfilled. When Jenson Button announced that he wanted to race in Formula 1, his father John wasn’t sure what to think. At the time, Button junior was just eight years old…
“Dad! Dad! Start me up…” That was the siren call, a sign that Jenson Button had just spotted a potential target at the Clay Pigeon kart track in Dorset. There was no racing on the menu at that time, though. It was just a spot of testing – a bit of harmless fun for father and son.
“It started off not long after I went through a divorce,” John said. “Jenson was with me at weekends and was quite hyperactive. He had a little motorbike and was becoming quite dangerous on it. I mentioned this one day to a guy called Keith Ripp, whom I knew from my days competing in rallycross [John finished second in the British championship in 1976].
“We were standing at the racing car show, reminiscing, and I told him about Jenson. Keith had a stand there and recommended I should buy a kart and put Jenson on four wheels rather than two. I wrote out a cheque there and then, for £806 if memory serves. I presented it to him at Christmas, shortly before his eighth birthday.”
Clay Pigeon was about an hour from the family home in Frome – and the first test was a quiet affair. “We were the only people there because it was a freezing cold, wet, winter’s day,” John said. “Jenson went around and around and I worked with him on racing lines and stuff, but at the time we had no intention of getting involved in any racing.
“As the weeks went by, though, local club members began to drift out of hibernation to start testing. Every time a youngster went out in a Cadet kart like Jenson’s, he’d always urge me to start him up, so he could go out and give chase.”
One day, the pre-season title favourite in the Cadet class arrived at the circuit. “I knew next to nothing about this area of the sport,” John said, “but I’d just read about this lad in a karting magazine. He had narrowly missed out on the championship the previous season and was expected to win this time. He went out onto the circuit and Jenson did his usual ‘Dad! Dad!’ thing, so I sent him out and he sat behind this guy, chasing him around.
“The other lad’s father then appeared, quite upset, and asked whether Jenson was running at the minimum weight limit for the class. I didn’t know what he was talking about and explained that we were just there for a bit of fun, but he told me that was unfair. So we went off to the weighbridge, added a bit of ballast and then Jenson went out again and did exactly the same thing.
At that point the other dad asked whether we were considering racing, but I wasn’t really sure. The next day I asked Jenson whether he fancied having a go, to which he said yes, so we entered him for an event at Clay Pigeon and he won first time out.”
There were, however, a few potential hurdles to overcome. “When he scored his first wet-weather victory at Clay Pigeon,” John said, “I ran out onto the circuit and threw my hat in the air in the same way that Colin Chapman used to celebrate Lotus F1 victories. Afterwards, I was told very firmly that you weren’t allowed to do that and I could get him disqualified…”
By halfway through that first season, Button was leading several local championships and it was time for a fatherly chat. “I told him it would be fine if he just wanted to do a bit of club racing, for fun,” John said. “That wasn’t a problem at all, but people were telling me he was quick enough to race seriously. I asked whether that interested him and he said, very calmly, ‘Yes, I want to be a Formula 1 driver’. He was only eight, remember, so I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Yes, son, of course you do’…”
This early promise was maintained, however, and by the age of 10 Button had become British national champion in the Cadet class. “At that stage,” said John, “I sat down with him and drew a karting pyramid. At the bottom, I told him, there were thousands of people who wanted to move up, but he had just taken a significant step because he’d won a title.
“If he could succeed in Junior and Senior karting categories he’d be getting closer to his dream and it was while looking at this that I started to see parallels between what Jenson was doing and what others has previously done in karting, drivers such as Ayrton Senna, Johnny Herbert and David Coulthard.”
Nor was this now simply a weekend pursuit. John had been a motor trader, but with the industry going through one of its inevitable periodic downturns he sold up and opened a karting business, preparing engines for Jenson and many others – including, a few years later, one Lewis Hamilton. “We ended up importing Tecno chassis from Italy,” he said, “then had our own chassis produced and won about seven British Junior championships on the trot. It grew and grew.”
Button’s career highlights
1991 Super 1 National Cadet karting champion
1997 European Formula Super A karting champion
1998 British Formula Ford champion
2009 Formula 1 World Champion
Jenson stepped up from Cadets to Juniors and collected another British championship, but the next move would be more complicated. “I knew we had to race abroad, in the European and world championships,” said John, “but there was no way I could afford to pay for that. I managed to find him a sponsor, though, and shortly before his 14th birthday Jenson was invited to attend a test session in Sicily, at a circuit just below Mount Etna, where a new Italian team was evaluating drivers.
“He got that drive, which was the next big step, and then moved up to the last major category, which was the now-defunct Super A class. That was a bit like F1, in that you needed the karting equivalent of a superlicence – and there were only about 50 of those in the whole world. He went out and won the European title and was lying second in the world championship when an engine failed.
“It felt as though we’d made it, so we sat there waiting for the phone to ring. If you have that kind of record nowadays you’d have all sorts of agents and managers hunting around, but nobody called…”
Contacts within the karting industry were as keen as John to see Jenson progress, however, and a series of introductions to potential investors led to funds being raised for a season in the 1998 British Formula Ford championship, with French chassis manufacturer Mygale. Button won the title – and the Formula Ford Festival – and at the year’s end he lifted the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver Award, too.
The French connection, through Mygale, proved incredibly useful. Jenson was recommended to Renault, which at the time had a junior team running in British Formula 3, and scored a couple of victories en route to third place in the 1999 championship. “And then,” said John, “at the end of that year we had Alain Prost ringing up to see whether Jenson might be free to test his F1 car…”
That was at Barcelona, in December, and the engineer in charge was Englishman Humphrey Corbett. “I just told Jenson to go out and take things steadily,” he said. “He didn’t know the car or the circuit and there was no pressure, so I sent him off down the pitlane.
“I gathered my things from the garage and was just strolling across to watch from the wall when I heard a car coming through the final corner, absolutely flat. I thought, ‘That can’t be ours’, but then I hadn’t seen anybody else go out.” A passing flash of Prost blue confirmed his suspicions. “It was immediately obvious,” said Corbett, “that he was an absolute natural.”
It didn’t take long for him to start lapping more quickly than the team’s regular driver, Jean Alesi. “I thought the stopwatch had gone wrong that day,” John said, “and not long afterwards Frank Williams was on the phone, wanting to know how much fuel he’d had on board and all that stuff. I remembered reading about other drivers stepping out of F3 to test an F1 car for the first time.
“You hear all this stuff about teams being more interested in feedback and progress rather than outright speed, but I think that’s nonsense – it’s the lap time that matters, nothing else. I knew he’d have to be bloody good as and when an F1 opportunity came, because otherwise there might not be another.
“I know dads are supposed to have faith in their sons, but I wasn’t overconfident about the F1 thing. My belief was underpinned by what others had always told me. The guys who ran him were always stressing how good they thought he was and mentioned his unusually smooth driving style, which is something he’s carried with him throughout his career.”
Williams had a vacancy for 2000 and Button was subsequently invited to take part in a test session, at Jerez, in the company of the team’s contracted reserve, Brazilian Bruno Junqueira. Car problems caused this to be cancelled, however, and the event was rescheduled for Barcelona. That went well enough and when Williams unveiled its new car, on January 24, it confirmed that it would be driven by Ralf Schumacher and Britain’s newest – and youngest – F1 driver: Jenson Button had turned 20 only six days beforehand.
“Once Jenson got to F1,” John said, “the phone at my kart shop never stopped ringing. I had more and more people calling to tell me they had the new Jenson Button. There was so much going on that I was starting to make mistakes on the tuning side, so Jenson suggested I sell the business and helped to look after his affairs instead.” He started the business to assist his son… and ended up having to offload it for the same reason.
That first F1 campaign contained nuggets of exceptional promise – such as third on the grid at Spa and fifth at Suzuka, two of the planet’s more challenging venues – but it would be a while before he got his hands on such a competitive car again. The 2004 BAR-Honda was quick compared to most things, but that year’s Ferrari was in a totally different league: Button recorded 10 podium positions and finished third in the championship, but towards the decade’s end it was beginning to look as though the chance of a serious title shot would never materialise.
When Honda announced its shock withdrawal from the sport in December 2008, his very career hung by a thread, but the team that subsequently emerged – Brawn – had a competitive car and Button capitalised in full. The team was shorter of resources than most, though, and the campaign featured the unusual spectacle of the world champion-elect travelling to and from European events with EasyJet.
On the back of that popular title success, Button has since switched to McLaren and – as he was at Silverstone last season – is at the sharp end of this year’s championship contest. The turnaround has been every bit as spectacular as the explosive early performances that originally led him to the sport’s highest plateau.
“When Jenson first moved into car racing,” said John, “I knew the chances of graduating to bigger things were huge, but I never imagined we’d be contacted by Frank Williams within the first two years. Jenson achieved success in every category and I always felt chances would come if things carried on that way, but I didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly. I’d like to have been better prepared, really, but you can’t really say ‘no’ when Frank Williams calls.”