When he retired from Formula 1 last year many thought they had seen the last of the 2009 world champion, but as he reveals in our exclusive interview, Jenson Button isn’t ready to hang up his racing helmet just yet and is already gearing up for a return to racing next year
Champions aren’t always as likeable as Jenson Button. The 37-year-old may have been at the pinnacle of his sport for more than a decade and won the world title in 2009, but he never lost his Somerset charm.
While some F1 superstars build a wall of publicists around themselves or construct an impregnable and improbable public image to protect them from prying eyes, JB has always managed to create the impression that he is still just a boy from Frome done good.
That may, in itself, be a carefully constructed image, but when we caught up with him recently he was as open as we can remember him. After retiring from F1 last year he was relaxed and cheerful, happy to chat and seemingly content be away from the F1 circus – notwithstanding his unexpected recall to the McLaren line-up for Monaco.
We wanted to find out how he saw his incredible career with the benefit of hindsight and what he plans for the future. But we began by asking him about his earliest memories of Formula 1, when as a seven-year-old he would watch Aytron Senna and Alain Prost doing battle, and whether their very different driving styles influenced him.
Jenson Button: Our whole household were Formula 1 fans but we all loved Alain Prost, rather than Ayrton. Obviously, I have massive respect for Ayrton but I think one of the reasons why I liked Alain was because of his smooth driving style. He also had Ayrton as a team-mate – and Ayrton would be the quickest guy over one lap.
They had very different driving styles. I remember speaking to Alain, a couple of years ago, about the Monaco Grand Prix when I think Ayrton was one and a half seconds quicker than Alain, which was embarrassing. Then in the race, Ayrton just disappeared into the distance until he crashed. It should have been the easiest victory for him and Alain said, “That probably was Ayrton’s only weakness, he wanted to humiliate me,” and that’s exactly what he tried to do but he ended up humiliating himself by crashing.
I loved the different personalities that were racing at McLaren-Honda, you know. It was Alain, it was Ayrton, such different characters. I wish I’d been able to be there and watch them and really experience their racing or even be part of that racing, because that was very special, a very special time in motor sport history.
In terms of driving style, when I started racing I was very aggressive, and my dad was the one that made me become a lot smoother in my driving style and smoother in my application of everything. Whether it was the throttle, whether it was the brake, the steering. He said, “You can be more precise that way, just like Alain.” So that is something I’ve carried through my career and it’s definitely stuck with me. At times I’ve had to change my style, a little bit, but the basics are still the same.
Sometimes it really hurts me because I can’t drive a car that doesn’t work for me. I really struggle because I want to fight the limit and keep it on the limit. Someone like Lewis can drive whatever at the limit – he’ll have oversteer and you’ll look at the lap and think, “That looks messy” and then you look at the lap time and he’s unbelievably fast. So, it’s just a very different way of driving. It means that I have better feel, I think, in tricky conditions, you know, when it’s dry or wet. I feel it through my arms and my bum, through the car and that’s where I get my pace from.
Motor Sport: And then years later we had you and Lewis at McLaren. And just like Prost and Senna, your styles were different. You were always smoother than Lewis; Lewis was perhaps rather dramatic to watch but often, particularly in the wet, the way you did it was quicker.
JB: Yes, for both of us it was a big part of our career, for three years, and there was a lot of pressure on both of us. We were world champions, him in 2008 and me 2009, so racing for this British team that had so much history and a history of having the greats – Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna – there was a lot of pressure on us. Yes, totally agree, very different styles.
Throughout the three years we were together – Lewis outqualified me, I think there were 60 qualifying sessions, and he was probably in front of me 40 times. So he was quicker, consistently, through qualifying but the race was a different story. We had such good battles. I really, really enjoyed working with Lewis but, when you’re both emotional individuals, there are times when it’s tough as well. So we had our ups and downs, a lot of ups and downs but that’s natural, that’s the way it should be. Nobody wants to see two perfect racing drivers, it doesn’t make for good racing.
You’ve got to have weaknesses and that’s what makes it fun.
MS: We’ve talked about relationships between team-mates. Of course, the other thing that goes on in Formula 1, which is incredibly intense, is your relationship with your team boss. If you go through the list of the people that you’ve worked with. Your first season you worked with Frank Williams and Patrick Head, two very different characters, two very charismatic men. Then, of course, you went to Benetton and had to deal with Flavio Briatore, which can’t have been easy.
Then David Richards at BAR, then of course Ross and then to McLaren. Ron Dennis must have been a bit different. Tell us about driving for Ron Dennis?
JB: As you said, I have worked with some interesting team bosses and CEOs, but they’re all different. They’re all so different and it’s been fun and interesting working with all of them, even Flavio, to be fair. I mean Flavio said I was a “lazy playboy” at the Monaco Grand Prix in 2001 and I thought it was perfect coming from him. Maybe he thought it was a compliment. Thinking back he probably did. It was a compliment, yes.
To be fair, I wasn’t lazy, but I probably was having a lot of fun and I did take my eye off the ball, definitely. My career almost ended then because I did get too involved in the whole glamour of Formula 1. So I made mistakes, but it definitely sorted me out and I became a lot more focused.
I changed a lot of things in the team as well, because the engineer I was working with didn’t suit me. I changed it all around and it became much better.
Anyway, that’s not what you asked. You wanted to know about Ron Dennis… Yes, I’ve got a lot of respect for Ron, I really have, because he’s achieved so much with McLaren over the years. He would do anything for that team, he really would. In terms of his personality, yes, he is difficult to work with, but when you know him well, he’s a really good guy, he honestly is.
He’s been tough over the years, but he’s always been very straightforward. He’s said exactly, you know, how it is and when we’ve done contracts together he’s been good. I’ve actually really enjoyed working with him but obviously he’s gone his own separate way now, so he’s missed.
MS: Were you sad when you read or heard that Ron had effectively been eased out of McLaren?
JB: I was probably more sad than most, yes. I would say that for the mechanics, it was slightly uncomfortable when Ron was around. He wanted them to fear him and it’s just not the way, really, these days, to run a team. You need a good atmosphere, especially when times are tough. You need to be rallying the troops, working closely with them and bringing them all in close when times are tough.
It didn’t really work, and the atmosphere wasn’t right for the last couple of years.
MS: That’s something that Ross Brawn was extraordinarily good at. He pulled that team who’d had an incredibly difficult time with Honda, together. He dragged the whole thing back together and you won your first race in Australia. Extraordinary.
JB: Yes, it was. The 2008 season was terrible in terms of results, but we knew what was coming for 2009. Honda had spent so much money developing this new car and we knew that it was going to be good. Then we heard the news that Honda was pulling out and couldn’t go racing any more and it was like, “Okay, well I don’t have any options, it’s just so late in the day.”
I had a chance to race at Toro Rosso. I remember speaking to Franz Tost. He said, “There’s a seat here, but you’ll have to bring money.” It was like, “This is a big change in my career after winning my first race a couple of years ago.” So it was a case of: “Right, this isn’t good enough, we’ve got to find a way of trying to help, first of all.”
Ross had to find a sponsor for the team – or a new owner, because we had a couple of options we put forward in terms of people who were interested. But obviously he decided to go the route of taking it over himself, but it was tough for me because I still wanted to race in Formula 1, with a top team. For the guys working in the factory, there were 300/400 people, their jobs gone, made redundant, so to finally go racing again, there was a big sigh of relief in the team. But it was so late when we actually got the call to say, “It’s back on. We’re going to paint it like this.”
There wasn’t a lot of thought that went into the design; we just had to come up with something because we had to get the car out on track and go testing.
Everyone was running around frantically, trying to work out where we’d find an engine. I spoke to Martin Whitmarsh from McLaren and asked whether he’d mind if we called Mercedes to ask for engines for the 2009 season?” He said, “Yes, no problem.” We had Mercedes engines that didn’t fit the car, so a spacer had to be fitted between the top of the chassis and the engine, because things didn’t fit correctly as the car had been made for a Honda engine. But then we went out testing and, obviously, the rest is history.
The special thing with this car, as everyone said, was the double diffuser. That’s true, but that’s not all. It’s the whole package. I remember speaking to Ross in Australia. He said to me, “It’s great that they’re all looking at the double diffuser because they’re not looking at the rest of the car – and that’s where the pace is. It’s just put together so well.”
When you go winter testing with a Formula 1 car bits fall off, things overheat, you always have an issue with something. With this, zero. There was nothing that went wrong.
MS: To go back a bit to 2006, you’d been six, seven seasons in Formula 1 without a win. Then in Hungary you got your first. How much did that first win mean?
JB: I’d been close a couple of times before and we got to Hungary and were running well. I think we were fourth-quickest in qualifying, but I had an engine penalty – yes, even back then! That meant a 10-place grid penalty, so I started 14th. It was when Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher were fighting for the world championship and they both got time penalties in practice [for flag infringements]. So they ended up starting quite close to me and we were all together, 10-15 places behind where we should have started.
So it was us three fighting through the whole way and it was a really good race, you know. It was a drying track and it was about picking your tyres at the right time. Fernando was leading the race and I was in second. I pitted, came out and I was hunting him down, taking eight tenths a lap out of him. So it was going to be a good old ding-dong. Then he pitted, came out and then had to retire when a wheel nut worked loose. So that left me on my own – I had a 35sec lead and I’ll always take a win. I don’t care how it happens.
Most people forget about the Fernando bit, but I thought I’d just mention it. I was just thinking, “Well, I’ve got 12 laps to go” and they were the best 12 laps. A lot of drivers say they worry about things failing, that they want it to end immediately.
Not for me. I enjoyed every single second of it because I’d had seven years of not winning races. It was the first time I’d won a race since I was in F3, so I savoured every moment.
MS: Another win, which we remember as possibly your greatest race, was the Canadian Grand Prix in 2011 when you had two accidents, six pit stops and you came through from last place twice. Tell us about that.
JB: I probably wouldn’t say it was my greatest race, but perhaps my greatest victory because most of the race was awful. I mean, I started sixth or seventh, I was fighting with Lewis for quite a few laps and then we touched, and he ended up in the wall. It looked like his suspension was broken. It wasn’t, he’d just had a puncture. Yes, he could have continued but the team said, “Stop, you’ve got broken suspension.” He could have continued, changed his tyre and carried on. I’m glad he didn’t, but…
Anyway the race was stopped for an hour or so, red-flagged because of the rain, and then I collided with Fernando. So two world champions – boom.
Then I had two more to contend with later on. I also got a puncture in the incident with Fernando and a broken front wing, so I had to pit for that. There was a safety car at that point, because they couldn’t move his car out of the way, so I changed the front wing, did the tyre, headed back out and I didn’t even catch up with the safety car when they restarted. I was about half a lap behind the back of the field and still came through to win, so, yes, it wasn’t pretty.
It was the maddest race, though, and fighting through and getting past Mark Webber and then overtaking Michael Schumacher I said, “This is great,” and I could see Sebastian Vettel up the road and I was catching him at one or one and a half seconds per lap, and then he started getting his car working. He could see me coming, I could see he was taking more risks – he was putting his tyres near the wet part of the circuit and then he finally did. I was hoping that I’d get close enough so that I could DRS past him on the back straight, but who knows if I would have done that? He then ran wide.
MS: Do you think you’re better when the odds are stacked against you? Does that allow you to pull out something a little extra?
JB: I don’t know. I mean, it makes it more fun… Maybe that gets me more excited, I don’t know. I also like winning from pole, but that doesn’t happen very often because I don’t normally qualify on pole.
MS: Moving on through 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, you were with Fernando Alonso. It’s been said that even though he’s never quite found himself in the right car, Fernando Alonso is possibly as quick as Lewis or even quicker. Do you agree with that?
JB: He’s just a very different driver, I think. I don’t think Fernando has ever doubted his ability. He’s a very confident individual. I’ve always found him very nice and, to be fair, I’ve enjoyed working with him. But I also know probably more than the team does in terms of how he’ll try to do something. He will try effectively… I’m not going to say because I think it’s unfair, but he will try anything to beat you.
It’s funny because when he’d done something I was probably the only person who knew – we’d sit across from each other in the engineering meeting and I’d just give him a little nod.
So, yes, he’s very clever.
MS: He has taken the decision to stay with McLaren, and they’ve had such a terrible time with Honda. Do you think it can all come right now?
JB: I don’t know how long he’s going to hang around. I love racing and I love Formula 1. But he is always on the go, you know. If he’s not driving a Formula 1 car, he’s driving something. He’s driving a car five days a week, so I don’t really know where he’s going to go with his life if he’s not racing in Formula 1. But he enjoyed Indy last year, so maybe he’ll do that. Then there’s Le Mans, but I think next season he’ll have a better time.
The only issue that I foresee is Red Bull.
It has the same engine and to beat a Red Bull with the same engine is very, very difficult. I’m not saying McLaren can’t, but there’s no hiding place.
It’s a shame with Honda, because I feel like part of the family with both McLaren and Honda, To see them separate is sad. I understand the reasons for it. I also think that Honda improved a lot throughout the season. The problem is, every time they get to the end of the season they look at, for example, the design of the Mercedes or the Ferrari engine and then start to change things drastically.
They do that and then racing starts again and then you have more reliability issues. I think that’s the biggest problem. If Honda keeps the same engine for next year, just keeps developing, there’s a possibility that it could be strong in the Toro Rosso. We’ve got to wait and see, but I’m happy that both Honda and McLaren are racing.
MS: In 2016 you finally took the big decision to retire. Let’s just talk about that for a moment. Had you planned that for a long time? Or, was it a decision you actually had to take during that year?
JB: I didn’t actually think I’d be in F1 past 30. When I got my drive with Williams, I was at dinner that evening in Barcelona with my dad and he said, “How long do you think you’ll race for? Do you think perhaps 35?” I said, “What, that’s old. I’ll be done by the time I’m 30,” but obviously not. Time flies.
I’ve always been told by ex-drivers that, if you feel like you want to stop, do one more year and then retire because otherwise you’ll feel like you’ve missed out and you will come back. So I did that and it’s probably the worst mistake of my life – the 2016 season wasn’t fun. I didn’t enjoy it.
Even 2014 and ’15 I didn’t enjoy as much as I should have done, but ‘16 was a tough year and, as soon as I decided I was going to retire in August/September, things changed.
It doesn’t matter if you think, “It’s not going to change, I’m going to stay fully focused and I’m going to give it everything.” Something changes. I drove round in Brazil and we had the perfect conditions for me to be competitive, but I was nowhere, nowhere. I couldn’t get the car working at all.
I don’t know if you become more fearful because it’s near the end, or whatever, but something happens.
There’s a switch that’s flicked and, yes, basically you disengage.
MS: When you left McLaren you had this slightly unusual deal to become an ambassador and then Fernando went off to do Indy and there you were doing the Monaco Grand Prix. You’d retired and suddenly there you were strapping yourself into a cockpit and had to do it again. Was that difficult?
JB: It was because I didn’t expect it at all. To be fair I could have said, “No.” I was sat on my sofa with my girlfriend and my two dogs and I was saying, “Shall I? Shall I do it, just one more race?” And she’s like, “Yes, you have to. You have to, you’ve got to see if you…” Not if you’ve still got it but if you still want it. I replied, “Okay, let’s give it a go.” I went to the factory and I think I drove the simulator for two days – which I think is more than Fernando drove the whole year!
I was just trying to get a feel for what to expect, making sure that I had a good feeling because it’s a completely different car. It’s three or four seconds quicker, you work in a very different way, the tyres are much bigger. So it was a case of, “Okay, let’s do this.” I was a little bit worried, but I didn’t have any pressure on me.
When I came out of the pit lane, I drove up the hill and I thought, “Okay, this feels so normal. It feels so natural,” and the first practice felt great. In second practice, when I had to start finding the limit, I found it a little bit more difficult. Not because I hadn’t been driving for six months, but because it was completely different from anything I’d ever driven in Formula 1.
You could brake 10 or 15 metres later, but to find that limit around Monaco is difficult, because if you brake too late you’re in the wall. It was tough, but I was pretty chuffed to come away with ninth on the grid for my only race that year, I must say.
MS: Well, you are a retired Formula 1 driver, but you are not a retired racing driver, and you’ve been a little bit cagey about what you’re going to do next season. So what can you tell us about that? Are you going to be racing in 2018?
JB: Yes, I will be driving, certainly next year. I haven’t got a contract to do anything yet, but I love Super GT in Japan. It’s an unusual category. I mean most people in Europe don’t know about it, because it’s not really televised. I need to work on them televising it or having a channel for it over here, because it’s such a good form of motor sport.
It’s basically a DTM car, so a carbon tub with a two-litre turbo engine, which sounds amazing. I don’t know how they run but they sound great, 650 horsepower and huge amounts of downforce and with a shell on top which is either a Toyota, a Nissan or a Honda. These things are four seconds quicker, I think, than a DTM car.
They’re about 10sec quicker than a GT3, so it’s quick, proper fast, and we race on the same track as GT3 cars. So the whole time you’re overtaking. In August I had a little race, a little taster, and absolutely loved it. The hunger is back for racing, so I’m very excited about that new challenge.
MS: Finally, given your style you would have been a pretty awesome racing driver in the 1960s and ’70s as well. Do you think you could have transferred to another era of our sport? And if so what one?
JB: I don’t know, I think the ’80s is an era during which I would love to have been racing. The only thing I would say is that we forget just how much of an advantage the McLarens had – up to two seconds clear of everyone else. The fight was so good between the team-mates that we forget that they had such a margin.
It’s difficult to know which era would have been the most exciting. Personally, the 1970s wouldn’t have been of interest to me because of the danger. The 1980s were definitely a bit more interesting and also a lot faster. From the ’70s to the ’80s there was a big difference in speed. You went from 400-450 horsepower to more than 1000bhp in the ’80s with the turbocharged engines.
I’ve driven a few of those cars. I drove an ’86 chassis, the McLaren MP4/2C – Alain Prost’s car with the turbo engine. It’s just crazy because you get to 2000/3000 revs and there’s nothing, no power, and then suddenly you get all the boost, then it just blows your mind. How those guys could drive them wheel-to-wheel… Because you’re not in control of the boost at all. It’s crazy.
So I enjoyed driving that. I also drove, last year, a V12 from 1990. The sound and everything else just worked. That’s the car in which I felt most at home, from the gearshift to the throttle and the brake.
Out of all the old cars I’ve driven, that was the one for me.
Images: LAT & Getty