Jenson Button is targeting a return to the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2023 and admits he is already talking to manufacturers for the race’s historic 100th anniversary, when Ferrari, Audi and Porsche will take on Toyota, Peugeot, Glickenhaus and possibly more as the new Le Mans Hypercar era really kicks on apace. At 41, the 2009 Formula 1 World Champion insists he is far from done with life as a racing driver and is relishing the prospect of extending his illustrious career well into this decade.
It was good to see him at the recent Extreme E opener in Saudi Arabia. A late deal to become an owner/driver in the electric off-road series left Jenson and team-mate Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky up against it in the desert, his JBXE team only getting its hands on the Odyssey 21 buggy for the first time on the Tuesday before the race weekend. No wonder it was all a bit of a struggle for the pair, but they will be much better prepared for round two in Senegal at the end of May. Naturally, throughout a tricky weekend for the 15-time grand prix winner, he remained his usual cheerful, relaxed and composed self. After all, at this stage of his life Button has nothing left to prove.
But Le Mans, only for the second time – and at the age of 43? That would really test him.
“I need to do something else as well as Extreme E,” he said when we chatted on the St Helena ‘roving paddock’ before the Saudi weekend. “I need to do some circuit racing as well. My dream is to race at Le Mans in 2023. The race is the best it’s ever been, probably. I remember talking about Le Mans 10 years ago actually, and how special it was. We had three manufacturers racing in LMP1, and then it massively declined very quickly. But it’s on the up again. It’s unbelievable: there’s going to be seven or eight manufacturers in LMH/LMDh. That’s the only thing [having two classes racing in parallel]. There’s slight confusion in categories.”
Environmental focus for Extreme E series that Button is racing in
So are you talking to people now, I asked? “Yes. For me it’s important not to just get in a car. I did Le Mans in 2018 [a BR Engineering LMP1] for the experience and I loved it, but still it wasn’t my car. I want to develop a car and that’s my strength.”
We can take from those words that he’s not taking this ambition lightly. Having experienced Le Mans with a relatively small team, Button won’t underestimate the challenge – but refuses to see his age as a barrier. He is, after all, still in fantastic shape and remains a committed fitness fanatic.
“I’ve spoken to a couple of people and they think it’s the perfect age,” he says. “Mid to late-30s, mid to late-40s is the best time for an endurance driver because you’re not there to prove anything. You’re there to develop the car. You’re going to be quick but also you’ve had the experience. A lot of guys that get into it that are young have something to prove for their future.”
Button would be an asset to any manufacturer, but can the age factor be dismissed so easily, even if he has the body of a driver half his age? Le Mans has moved on a step or eight since the 1990s when the likes of Bob Wollek could still command works drives deep into his 50s. Endurance racing has a sprint mentality today, even over 24 hours, and high levels of downforce take their toll on bodies, at whatever age.
Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish – the last Le Mans winners in their 40s, flank Loïc Duval after their 2013 victory
Jean-Francois Monier/AFP via Getty Images
The last drivers to win Le Mans in their 40s were Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, who were 44 and 43 respectively when they shared the winning Audi R18 with Loïc Duval eight years ago, in 2013. A lot of water has passed under the sports car racing bridges since then and the long game today is attracting more drivers at early stages of their careers.
Kristensen, McNish and Duval also won the World Endurance Championship that season, so the vets could clearly still hold their own. But McNish wisely chose that landmark success as the moment to stop, with Kristensen following him into retirement a year later. Both paid heed to signs that the time was right.