In his comfort zone

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Teatime in McLaren’s paddock palace, The Brand Centre. ‘Team Button’ – father John and manager Richard Goddard – are having a natter. They might be talking business, but just as likely they’re shooting the breeze. Both men prefer to live on the light side and are open characters around those they feel comfortable with, and their contentment bubble on an ordinary Formula 1 Thursday afternoon reveals much about the easy breezes that this year – at last – have filled Jenson’s sails.

Things are calm these days for their boy, sorted, thanks to a three-year deal with one of the only two (maybe three) teams that truly matter; said contract has brought a previously unimaginable degree of serenity, both professional and personal, to Buttonworld.

Of course, Jenson’s bold decision to set himself up against maybe the hardest nut in the coconut tree will bring (has brought) difficult days, but these are racing matters, challenges he was born to face. And for the first time in his life, he is able to meet them unhindered. No distracting influences of a caustic boss (step forward Mr Briatore); no wayward manager; no wilderness of green marketing agendas to muddle the engineering focus; nor, happily, any little-publicised but extremely real management fallout of the kind that late last year poisoned the Button-Brawn GP relationship to its very core and contributed directly to JB’s McLaren defection.

So much history. He’s here now, physio Mike Collier at his shoulder (more laughter, private joke), looking relaxed, not haunted as in his early Benetton/Renault spell; nor anguished as during those lost Honda years 2007-8; nor pressured as last year riding the beautiful but oh-so-fragile Brawn balloon.

He unfolds his lanky frame (as well suited these days, evidently, to triathlon competition as it is to a racing cockpit) into a perch opposite and turns on that easy charm: cheeky grin, still-boyish good looks, a twinkle in the eye that he surely inherited from his old man. Today it’s directed at motorhome hostess Kate Hitchins.

“What would you like, Jenson?”

“Tea. Do you have English Breakfast? You haven’t got any English Breakfast, have you? Builders’? I’ll have builders’ then, please.”

“Sugar?”

“One, please. Thank you.”

What the banality of this exchange loses in print is the element of playful banter that’s apparent first-hand. Did Fernando Alonso ever order a cuppa with this much mischief during his troubled McLaren sojourn? Probably not. He was never – not for a nano-second – this comfortable here.

Prompted to consider this apparent ease, Jenson offers this: “I just am pretty relaxed here, yeah. They’re a great bunch and people maybe don’t realise that about McLaren. They’re all very focused and passionate about their racing, but they’re fun – serious when they need to be but also fun away from that.”

This much isn’t necessarily new to anyone who has watched McLaren evolve over the past two seasons from a warm-hearted though studiedly impenetrable racing machine, to a team that while still a standard-setter for presentation, organisation, precision, is markedly warmer, less uptight. If McLaren were a date, these days it would contemplate a one-night stand; McLaren past would have insisted on a formal courtship period, pre-nups and paternal assent (who might we be thinking of here?) before permission would be granted to venture anywhere remotely interesting.

Into this McLaren 2.0 Jenson Alexander Lyons Button fits perfectly. And not merely as a cog in a machine: speak to those around him and you’ll quickly hear that this hard-to-impress gang has been rather wowed by the new boy’s contribution.

Here’s Jakob Andreasen, Jenson’s race engineer: “He’s brought a lot to this company, more than any other driver I can remember,” he says. “McLaren drivers spend a lot of time at the factory because of their sponsor commitments and for the simulator, so they’re always in. And while they’re here they’ll have lunch with the guys in the canteen and just be sociable, getting a lot of exposure. Jenson has responded very well to that. We don’t have to put him on a pedestal. He has to buy credit for his lunch card like everyone else and if he wants to use the gym, he’ll find other McLaren people in there. But he seems to like that. He doesn’t want too much fuss. He’s a very down-to-earth World Champion.”

This much is true, indeed obvious, just from being around Button. He does not, to put it crudely, have his head up his arse. There are plenty, however, through Jenson’s F1 decade who have suggested this very lack of monstrous ego might have held him back, that he might too often have been too calm, too placid.

But that would be to misconstrue a very rare kind of driving talent: one that doesn’t scream its presence on full opposite lock, but that prefers to finesse its way to success. This isn’t just ‘new Prost’ easy cliché, it’s largely true: Jenson’s first big result, for Williams, was at a streaming Hockenheim in 2000, when he rose from 16th to fourth, closing on David Coulthard for third as the flag fell.

Four years on, in Malaysia, a sprinkle helped Jenson to that landmark first podium with BAR. Hungary 2006, again through the rain, brought the memorable first win and this year, of course, two brilliant wet-dry splash-’n’-grab victories (Australia, China) were the product of smart thinking allied with the finest driving skills – always at their most evident when conditions are at their worst.

Button’s filigree talent is deftly described by Jonathan Neale, MD of McLaren Racing, as that of “a precision racing machine”.

Quickly, conversation with Neale returns to what Button has brought to McLaren, rather than a more predictable strain of how the team’s many layers of expertise, evolved over decades, have provided Jenson with the perfect platform on which to operate at a new high. “We thought it would take longer for Jenson to adapt to us and for us to adapt to him,” Neale notes, “but he made it incredibly easy for us. Richard and John have come in and helped with a little bit of a warming of the soul of McLaren. But at the same time Jenson is data-driven, rational and happy to rely on information given to him. He also has an open-mindedness that’s so refreshing, which means we can share and talk about things without there being a sense of ‘don’t offend’. And I like the way Jenson will interact with Lewis and speak his mind.”

He’s a big boy then, a grown-up who has been around a while, has learned the ropes – indeed, has ascended them – and has earned the right to be taken seriously. Easy to forget how casually Button was dismissed by so many over the years, from Briatore’s “he’ll never make a World Champion”, to Villeneuve’s initial rubbishing of Jenson as a “weak team-mate”.

More anecdotally there’s the remembered aside from a senior member of the BAR-Honda management team: “Jenson, fit? I’m fitter than he is,” or a snub from a former colleague who sincerely believed that by 2005 JB would be racing British GTs.

My, my, some humble pie has been consumed these past 18 months, though to be fair to Button’s detractors, it did take him an awfully long time to find that winning groove: 10 seasons and 171 races ’til ‘World Champion’ could finally be written after ‘Jenson Button’.

We pause to reflect on Jenson’s odyssey and he mentions that, by coincidence, earlier that morning his engineers had shown him the data traces kept from 1999 when he first drove a McLaren as a prize for winning the McLaren/Autosport Young Driver gong a year earlier. It must seem a lifetime ago, something that happened to some other 19-year-old kid called Jenson Button?

“Yeah… it’s scary. I’m 30, and I feel that I’ve experienced quite a lot for a 30-year-old. It seems like a long time ago. A long, long time ago.”

He looks surprised, maybe even a tick irritated, at mention of the number of races until the title was secured (“… oh, was it…?”), but then continues with a measured reflection of the whats, whys and wherefores: “We all have different routes to winning the World Championship, or even fighting for the World Championship, but my route… a lot of the time I was in a car that wasn’t that quick. We had moments when we had a competitive car, but never the quickest. In ’04 and ’06, we thought we could challenge for the championship. But there was always one team that was superior to us. In ’04 Ferrari were one second quicker than anyone, so finishing third in the championship behind the two Ferraris was like winning the title.

“2006,” he continues, “was a great year, then ’07 and ’08 were shit. ’07 was the worst. We had no leadership and I just thought ‘where the hell is it going to go from here?’ There was no direction, no light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t understand how we were going to dig ourselves out of the position we were in. And because we didn’t have results there wasn’t going to be another team interested in employing me, because the car wasn’t quick and people have very short memories.

“But you never give up because there’s always a goal and you don’t put a time on it, really. You’re always going to fight to achieve your goal and it doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s like Lance [Armstrong]. He came back and wanted to win the Tour. And Michael. They will fight until they do achieve and that’s the way I feel.”

What becomes clear in talking to Jenson is that a very deep-rooted confidence in his ability, a self-awareness of his talent, is the bedrock of his competitiveness. He’s one of a rare breed so naturally good at what they do, and so blessed to be spending their lives doing it, that questions of proving ability to others become academic, even when the world beyond the cockpit screams ‘show us what you’ve got’.

“He doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody,” Neale agrees. “In the simulator and in the development reviews, he shows his self-assurance. He’s driven some good cars and driven some pigs of cars over the years, and all that has contributed to a good technical understanding of what’s going on around him. He’s not one of those drivers who takes no interest – kicks the tyres, says ‘it’s rubbish’ and walks away. He’ll work on a problem and wants to be involved. With that slightly boyish charm he’s likeable and easy-going. Just a consummate professional.”

Jenson, in his own estimation “not someone who likes to have wind blown up his arse”, might blush at these paeans, yet they’re not lightly offered. McLaren is an unsentimental racing team not given to employing hangers-on and its stated ambition is to be a championship contender every year.

That’s pressure – the flip side of silver-painted privilege. “But that’s exactly why I’m here,” Button insists. “I don’t want to drive a car that’s not competitive and that I can’t fight at the front with. This is exactly what I need in my life and in my career right now.”

Undeniably, thanks to his own skills and deft management, Jenson has put himself in a fine position to challenge again for titles and to chrome-plate a reputation that post-Brawn was always vulnerable to ‘best car, lucky champion’ jibes.

Now, up against one Lewis Hamilton, in the team that groomed this brilliant prodigy to become the sport’s youngest World Champion, any victory has to be considered the real deal.

“He is unbelievably quick, isn’t he,” Jenson grins, “and we can’t get away from that. But over the first half of the season, to be in a new team and only five points behind Lewis in ‘old money’ and second in the championship with two wins… I’m reasonably happy with that.”

So is he the toughest team-mate you’ve had?

“Um… He’s the quickest, I think. As team-mates go though, I’ve got on with him probably better than any other. He’s very straightforward and we can say how we feel to each other, but the great thing is that it we say about each other and what we say about the situation. That’s important to me.” doesn’t build up inside us. We’re very open with our comments, what we say about each other and what we say about the situation. That’s important to me.”

And are you better than him?

[Pause] “Um, I think… it’s very difficult to say… I think that we have positives, both of us. Lewis is great at dragging the best out of a car even when it’s not a quick car, especially if the car is oversteer-y. He has learned to drive like that and that’s something I don’t really like.

“But there are other areas where you think as a driver you’re stronger than your team-mate. And there are… I’m not going to say where, but there are areas. I think we work very well because we drive a similar set-up, but we are different in the way that we drive. It’s exciting for both of us because we know we can learn from each other.”

One area where Button may be taking a sneaky peek at the Hamilton method is in qualifying. Post-Silverstone, round 10, the mid-point grid battle stood 7-3 in Hamilton’s favour, with Lewis the only man to challenge Red Bull’s front-row domination (second in Turkey, pole in Canada). “I’m not 100 per cent in qualifying,” Jenson admits. “In the races I’m very happy with the car and the strategy of the team, but in qually we’re still struggling to hit the sweet spot.”

It’s that precision thing again, and perhaps Jenson’s travails in this area can be viewed as a microcosm of his career proper: get everything perfect (see Brawn GP’s first half-season 2009) and he’s untouchable; lose the mojo and the harmony’s gone.

Such foibles, however, matter less now that he’s among F1’s elder statesman, and has proven that when things go well, they’re likely to go bloody brilliantly. Finally in a team that likes nothing better than to analyse, understand, apply method, fix, Button’s armoured against criticisms of only being as good as his car will allow him to be. McLaren wants Jenson (Button makes a telling aside about “no longer having to defend himself”) and it will slave to give him the car he needs – while also doing the same thing, of course, for that Hamilton chap.

Jakob Andreasen describes the Button hallmark as “making the most of the machine”, while McLaren’s hallmark, if you will, is making the most of the machines it gives its drivers.

“He likes the car to do the turning and driving for him,” Andreasen adds, “rather than hustling it around. That’s why he’s good with the tyres. He likes quite a stable car, as most drivers do, and he likes to have a very good front end at the apex.

“His feedback is very good and when you give him what he needs his race pace and race craft are exceptional, as is the way he looks after his car. His aggression in hassling other drivers… let’s say there are other people who are a bit better, but it’s not a big drawback.”

All of which qualities make Button, still only 30, a worthwhile investment. He might, after all, have another decade of top-flight F1 ahead.

“Yeah, but I won’t… I can’t think that far ahead to be honest. I would like to win the World Championship while I’m at McLaren and that has to be my aim. I didn’t think I’d be this close this year, but I got comfortable here pretty quickly so I was able to get to grips with fighting for the championship quite early.

“But after the next couple of years, I don’t really know what I’m going to do.”

Whatever the future, you sense that after such a turbulent career the next step will be motivated more by pleasure potential than anything else, and that likely as not Richard Goddard will be part of the picture.

Reflecting on early career mismanagement and moments of F1 madness such as the contractual tug-of-love between Williams and BAR through 2004-5, Button confesses: “You really go through some shit times when you’re trying to find a good manager. They’re few and far between, that’s what I’ve come to realise in my career, anyway. But if I needed to go through all those managers and spend all that money and lose all that money again, for me it’s all worth it because of Richard. He’s been a great manager but also a very good friend through the difficult times. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s taught me a lot in life and in business. It’s great having him around.”

The man himself is only feet away, but out of earshot, still riffing with Button Sr. Wine is involved. They are, unashamedly, having fun.

As is Jenson – right now and in a much, much broader sense. McLaren, after one of the craziest Formula 1 career adventures, seems to be just his cup of tea.

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