I have been out on the road. Not having as much fun as Jack Kerouac, but nonetheless an interesting week or so. The final leg of my journey took me – via London, Wales and Littlehampton – to Goodwood where, as some of you know, I have spent a large part of my life.
On this occasion I went to see Jenson Button. Now you might imagine that a Formula 1 driver would have his feet up at home this week, that’s if he’s not testing the new Pirellis in Abu Dhabi. Wrong. Former World Champions are always on the go, their highly remunerative contracts requiring them to spend time with sponsors and other important benefactors. This is particularly true at McLaren, a team that takes its ‘sponsorship management’ very seriously.
So this week Jenson dropped in to Goodwood for a private day for title sponsor Vodafone. His task? To give its guests a ride to remember. And boy, did he deliver. It was bucketing down when JB took a silver Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren out onto a very wet Goodwood circuit, the big car searching for grip between the puddles. But a bit of precipitation has never bothered Button. This is a mighty car, the result of the combined technologies of McLaren and Mercedes-Benz, built in Portsmouth and Woking. Big 5.4-litre V8 engine, automatic gearbox and rear-wheel drive. Just right for thrilling those lucky enough to be his passengers on what the team calls its day of ‘hot laps’.
Were there gasps and shrieks from the passenger seat, I wondered? “No, but there were from me,” quipped JB. “It is very wet out there, almost too wet really.” Button is super-fit, relaxed, cheerful and charming, a man upon whom the World Championship has been sitting very comfortably. People take to him, especially the ladies. On this form, it’s not hard to see why. This was a day to show just why he is where he is, and you get the impression that McLaren is very pleased indeed with its new boy.
I watched in awe as the car rumbled round, waiting to interview him for a Goodwood DVD proclaiming the joys of events at Lord March’s Sussex estate. JB drove Prost’s McLaren TAG at the Festival of Speed this year and described it as the best day of his life. The rain fell incessantly as JB growled around in the Merc. Even he was lifting for the ultra-quick Fordwater corner, such was the volume of water. The silver machine is worth damn near £300,000 and there’s no point in frightening people.
The following day the 2008 World Champion flew in to have his turn. Luckily for Lewis Hamilton and his guests, it was sunny and dry. From where I was standing this looked like a happy family, a Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes team very much at ease with itself despite a poor year by its standards. You can be sure that noses are already on the grindstone at Woking…
Life, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested, is the eternal imponderable. And life on the road allows for plenty of time to ponder. If Bahrain seems just too far way, worry not, they will be out testing new cars in February. Lewis and Jenson can’t wait to get their hands on MP4-26, to renew their friendly but serious rivalry. Meanwhile they will have their holidays, do their bit for the sponsors, and return to a new car, new Pirellis and a new season.