We meet at the Hungaroring, near Budapest, where Button is working for Honda on a promotional film. It’s him, me, a small film crew and a concrete pit garage. No glamour, certainly, and few distractions.
He has spent the previous three days in Thailand, enduring a disappointing Super GT race because of weight ballast imposed on him and his team-mates for leading the championship. He arrived in Hungary at 2am, and from his full day at work is flying to the UK for three days, before heading to LA for four days and then coming back to the UK for the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Tired? “Shattered,” he says, but with a smile lighting up his face. “It’s probably a bit too much, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Button’s early years are well documented, not least in his excellent autobiography, published last year. Most famously, he was plucked from Formula 3 aged 19 and made the Williams F1 team’s driver, immediately becoming the darling of the British press – and carrying the burden of expectation despite his inexperience – in the wake of Damon Hill’s retirement. That first year, 2000, was punctuated by ups and downs, but the highlights were more than enough to then earn him a two-year contract at Benetton when Williams found itself with three contracted drivers for two seats. It was at that point that his golden boy reputation started to diminish.
“The Benetton was a pig, I could probably be accused of relying too much on my talent and not realising how hard you have to work in F1 and, well, there was Flavio,” he says, in no mood to shy away from a tough question. Flavio Briatore was Button’s boss, and mid-season he decided to try to extract more pace from his driver (or possibly pave the way for sacking him) by lambasting him in public. In particular, Button came in for stick for turning up at the Monaco GP and parking his new super-yacht in full view.
Briatore was no stranger to either extravagance or having a supermodel on each arm but, as he pointed out, he’d earned his spurs managing teams to world titles. Button was then an unfulfilled talent, acting like he’d made it – and he now believes it was Briatore’s attacks that painted him in a negative light for years to come.
“The boat was a mistake,” says Button. “You know, I couldn’t even afford it really – it was way beyond my means, and I had to sell it again soon afterwards, but I was talked into buying it, and then I was talked into taking it to the race. Bad advice. The whole playboy thing started there, and I invited the criticism through my actions. But the truth was I was far from that: I’ve pretty much always had steady girlfriends and, while I used to like a party, I also like a stable life. Now, I can’t even remember the last time I went to a club in LA. It’s all nights in, restaurants or hanging out with friends. “But what I learned then was that when things aren’t going to plan, the natural instinct is to look for reasons why. That’s what Flavio was doing.