In an extract from his new book, Jenson Button describes the moment he knew what he would do with his life
‘The racing line’, we call it. The fastest way around a corner. So, say, if the corner is a right-hander, you’ll start as far to the left as possible, you judge the turning-in point, hit the apex and then let the kart run all the way out to the exit kerb. It’s not necessarily the shortest distance around a corner, but it’s the route that lets you keep your speed as high as possible, and that compensates for any extra distance. If the track is empty or if the cars are in procession then the racing line is the same for every car. The difficult bit comes when there are lots of other cars around, that’s the trick. In karting, it’s complete madness.
To teach me the basics, Dad would stand on the side of the circuit at the very point he thought I should brake for the corner. He’d position himself about 150 metres from the corner apex, wait for me to pass – thumbs up or thumbs down depending on how I’d done – and then move closer to the apex of the corner for the next lap, the idea being that I’d carry more speed into the corner and brake later. He’d go so far up to the apex that I’d end up coming off, but I learnt from that, too.
They were great sessions. Thanks to the old man’s tuition, Clay Pigeon was where I learned my racecraft, by which I mean how to overtake, how to position your kart when you’re fighting for position, how to understand racing lines, the quickest way around a circuit, how to deal with the curveballs that catch you off balance, how to adapt to them – just a few of the tools you need in your toolbox as a racing driver.
It was also where my driving style was forged. In many ways I suppose you could say that I looked back to my time admiring Alain Prost. As a rule I try to be as precise as possible. I try to carry speed through a corner. I try to feel the car. In karting I’d always listen to the revs of the engine and make sure to keep the cornering revs as high as possible, and that’s how I’d judge which racing line to take. I’d listen to the engine note and if the engine note died too much in a corner, I’d know it wasn’t the best line. So next time around, I’d try a different line. Same in F1. Every corner I get to, I don’t just see it, I feel it through my bum, through the car itself.
It’s why I always get the maximum out of the car in the wet. Because I drive by feel, I can adapt to unusual conditions and think on my feet.
A lot of drivers, they look at the circuit and they’ll go, ‘Well, it’s a bit wet in that corner, so I’ll slow down’, whereas you need to arrive and you need to feel everything through the car and through the tyres.
That’s how I always gain the time in those tricky conditions, when it gets wet through a race or it dries out and you’re on the wrong tyre.
So I could be in the wet on a dry tyre but I can always find the grip, whereas a lot of people can’t. In Formula 1, I’ve won 15 Grands Prix and I think seven of them were in the wet.
Another thing I learned back then is that I love being in control of the rear of the car. If it has too much front grip the rear slides throughout, and I hate that feeling. A tiny bit of front sliding is fine, because I know where to put the car at the corner. But if the rear is sliding, ugh. I need the rear stable to carry that speed through a corner. My style has stayed the same since those early days of karting. I mean, obviously you adapt little things here and there but basically that’s the way I drive; that was the way I did it in karting and I’ve carried that style through my entire racing career.
I’ll even do it on the road. I’m not a fast driver on the road. Yes, I have, in the past, driven very quickly on roads, but I was younger then and stupid. These days I don’t. But I do bring racing principles to it. For example, if I’m arriving at a roundabout, even in a Range Rover, I’ll shift down manually always, just to use the engine brake and slow the car down so it doesn’t damage the brakes too much and then (having checked it’s safe, obviously) I’ll always do the racing line around the roundabout; I’ll cut every kerb as much as I can, so that I’ve lined the car up for a good exit, and if I see a kerb that’s quite flat, I’ll always take a little bit of that kerb, just like on the circuit.
Precision, see? It has its plus points but it does mean that if I get a car that doesn’t handle the way I want then I won’t be as quick as Lewis Hamilton. I won’t be as quick as Fernando Alonso. I need to fine-tune my car so that it works with my style. If I do that, I’ll be unbeatable.
And like I say, Clay Pigeon was where my racing style was first developed. I was putting the rudimentary knowledge I’d gained in those early sessions to good use, getting better and better, increasing in confidence and skill. Because most of the lads who used Clay Pigeon were older, 10 or 11, I’d been learning the ropes by following them.
One particular guy was Matthew Davies, hotly tipped, the favourite to win the Cadet championship. We knew all about him from our well-thumbed copies of Karting Magazine. Following Matt one afternoon, I pretty much stayed on his bumper for several laps, which for a young kid and rank rookie like myself was pretty good going.
‘Why don’t you put him in for a race?’ said Matt’s dad to my dad. Obviously I had to be a hotshot if I’d managed to go bumper-to bumper with his lad. ‘Nah,’ said Dad, ‘it’s just something we do at the weekends, bit of fun, you know? Some father–son time.’ Later, though, when it was just him and me, Dad asked the question to which he already knew my response. ‘Do you fancy having a crack at racing, Jense?’ I hardly needed to answer, I was that full of confidence and fearlessness.
Dad knew I wanted to race but I think even he was taken aback by my enthusiasm. In most other areas of my life I was shy and unsure of myself; the boy from Northcote Crescent tended not to travel. But I’d found him, outside of his usual comfort zones. I’d found him in the driving seat of my kart.
From Life to the Limit – my Autobiography, by Jenson Button, published by Blink. Available from the Motor Sport Shop at £20. www.shop.motorsportmagazine.com