MH When the Honda decision came and the team was facing oblivion, was it a big decision to stay? You could have left.
JB Yes. I could’ve gone to Toro Rosso but that wasn’t really an option. I still had things to prove. I’d only won one race [Hungary 2006]. Also I wasn’t young any more so I wasn’t going to get to Red Bull from Toro Rosso. So Brawn – or whatever it was going to be called – had to be good.
It seems amazing that Honda had that car just at that time.
Well, they’d spent all their money just on that car. The 2008 car they didn’t develop at all. It was a tough year for the whole team in 2008 because we knew going in we weren’t going to be developing that car because everything was going into the new regulations for ’09. They put everything into it.
Including the double diffuser?
It was a Japanese guy who found the double diffuser loophole. He wasn’t the only one obviously, because it was on the Williams and Toyota, too. But the great thing was, everyone was so distracted by the double diffuser they didn’t see the whole, which was the reason it really worked. They were blinded by the double diffuser.
What do you remember about your first test in Barcelona?
The problem was we didn’t really know how quick it was. We had all our simulations of what the car should do and we looked at the first test – which we weren’t at, we missed it. We hadn’t even shaken down the car yet. And when we saw the lap times from that first test we thought ‘Oh no, we’ve got our simulation wrong because it’s saying we’d be 1.5sec faster than that’. Then we turned up in Barcelona and on the first run were 0.6sec quicker than anyone. I came in and said ‘Guys, the balance isn’t there, we need to do this for the fast corners and this for the slow’ – and Shov [Andrew Shovlin] stuck his head in the cockpit and said, ‘Mate, you’re 0.6sec clear of anyone else.’ Oh s**t. We worked with the balance and I think we ended up 1.2sec quicker than anyone. So we put fuel in it for the rest of the winter!
The first time I actually drove it was on the Silverstone school circuit and what stood out wasn’t how it felt as you couldn’t get any tyre temp. It was that nothing went wrong. Nothing felt wrong. Which on a brand new car is so rare.
And that just carried on in the first race…
Yes, when we eventually got to the first race, Friday was pretty good – though not as good as we expected – Saturday we blew them out the water in qualifying. The funny thing was, it still wasn’t an easy race. We went for a strategy that worked, but only because Vettel and Kubica took each other out. So it wasn’t going to be an easy win. At none of the races was it ever like what Mercedes has now. But every race it just fell in our laps, the team didn’t make any mistakes, the mechanics were unreal, especially considering we had no practice during the winter, no pit stop practice… nothing.
And you had very little money, too?
Yeah. We had nothing. For Turkey I flew by EasyJet. That was the last win. That was a great race.
I always thought the car suited your style. Did you think that, too?
Yeah, the problem with me was always tyre temperature. At circuits like Silverstone I couldn’t get the tyre temp. All through my career – that’s just the way that I drive. I try to be as smooth as possible. I tried to be aggressive but it didn’t work for me. Circuits like Silverstone, and other tracks like Valencia. It was tricky. Spa, too. There were tracks the tyres just didn’t work on.
What changed across the second half of the season?
I remember at Turkey [where we won] I screamed into the radio ‘What just happened’ I was screaming with happiness. I said: ‘You’ve built me a monster, guys’. The car was fantastic for the first half of the year then all of a sudden we were falling off a cliff.
After Turkey came Silverstone and we couldn’t qualify better than sixth. I just couldn’t get the tyres working.
Also we didn’t develop the car through the year. The problem was that the stuff that goes on the car for race six or seven you’re developing three months before, and we didn’t even know if we were going to be racing at that point. I assumed it was because we had no money, but I spoke to Ross the other day and he said we didn’t partly because we had to save money for 2010, but the bigger issue was building the parts when we weren’t in the tunnel. The car hadn’t even seen the tunnel for three months. You’re never going to be able to compete. So it was lucky we had that initial advantage otherwise we’d have had no chance.
That makes you realise how amazing it was that Ross pulled it out of the bag.
The funny thing was we had a couple of people interested in buying the team. We got to the point where they were ready and we called Ross and didn’t get a reply. Then called again, no reply and we thought ‘hang on, something’s going on here’. It turned out he’d actually purchased the team himself for £1. There was so much emotion through 2009, because we came from a group of people not having a job to winning the title. It was unreal and that continued through the year.
Did you think at any point that you weren’t going to win?
I remember at Singapore [race 14] saying: ‘What are we doing?’. It felt like the opposite of the first seven races. Nothing went right for us. I said on the radio we’re throwing it away. And at Brazil in qualifying we messed up [in the wet]. Ross said the other day to me that with Rubens they got the strategy perfectly right, but with me we didn’t get out at the right time [Button was 14th fastest on wet rubber, when most others timed things right to go for inters]. Vettel copied us so he was even further back, in 16th. It made it a fun, dream way to end of the season. If you were going to make a film about a season of F1, you’d do it like that, from adversity then with the jeopardy right at the end, ‘oh my god is he going to lose!’ [Jenson finished fifth, and in doing so secured the drivers’ and constructors’ titles].
You drove the car again recently; was it how you remembered it?
Jumping back in it felt so normal. I got in the seat and thought I have never had a seat this good… in anything!
I hadn’t driven the car since ’09 and I’ve driven so many cars since, yet it was perfect. My body not moving in the high-speed corners, the throttle movement just as I like it, the brakes, steering. The steering felt quite heavy, but I think that was because it had a wider tyre on it. But you forget how small the cars were then, small but beautiful. And look at the lines of it. I know it has this big nose and the front wing is a bit square and angular, but it’s so nice. It doesn’t look like it’s aged. That [V8] sound good too.
The car you drove is owned by Ross, and is basically one of a kind now…
They told me not to break it. Which is exactly how we had to race it! Don’t touch the kerbs. I came round the last corner flat out and Ross had his head in his hands. He was so worried. There are no more suspension components because the moulds were crushed. And it’s not been stress tested because they can’t put that much stress through it. They said don’t brake hard. The power didn’t take my breath away, just the high-speed grip and the flow of the circuit in that car – and seeing Ross’s face.