The 2009 Formula 1 champ gets plenty of media attention for his leisure pursuits but for him, it’s always been about the racing
Jim Holder
4 August 2018

Will the real Jenson Button please step forward?

If you followed his Formula 1 career, you might think him everything from an exhibitionist to a womaniser to a decent driver who ended up in the right car at the right time... or you might just as readily recall him for scooping the 2009 world championship, 15 GP wins, some of them sensational, and out-scoring none other than Lewis Hamilton over their three years as team-mates at McLaren.

If we’re ever going to find out the truth, the time is now. Button’s been out of F1 for 18 months, bar a one-off return in Monaco when Fernando Alonso did the Indy 500 last season, and is notably at ease with the world, be it in his private life – where he’s settled with fiancée Brittny Ward, with whom he has set up home in Los Angeles – or his professional one, which includes racing Super GT cars in Japan, prototypes in the World Endurance Championship and various commentary and promotional jobs around F1.

Jenson Button - a career in pics

Our Verdict

McLaren Senna 2018 road test review - hero front

Can Woking’s 'ultimate road-legal track car' make history at our dry handling track?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

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.

"I wouldn’t say that I was acting like a playboy, but I would reflect on it and say that I was taking my eye off the ball. I wasn’t as focused as I should have been and I wasn’t working as hard as I needed to. ButI worked that out very quickly. If the criticism was deserved, I’d rectified the cause long before the critics stopped talking about it.

“The problem with sport is that when you aren’t winning, which is most of the time, you are always looking for reasons why you’re not good enough, and the truth is that sometimes you’re just having a bad day, or something doesn’t fall your way. You haven’t lost your talent overnight, but there’s all this pressure from yourself and your team analysing what’s wrong. The mental pressure can be overwhelming, yet you can wake up the next morning, be the same person and deliver the performance of your life. Having the confidence to know that takes time.”

Redemption took some years to come, via the Renault and Honda works teams, a broken contract to return to Williams that cost him both honour and millions (but which Button reasonably points out should underline that he was in F1 to win, not make money), and eventually with Brawn and McLaren. The convergence of good fortune that made the Brawn a championship-winning car (Honda withdrew from F1 and Brawn undertook a management buyout of the team, allowing it to pair its brilliant, rule-beating chassis with the pre-eminent Mercedes engine) is another reason that critics call Button lucky, but that rather overlooks the fact that he was much faster than his team-mate, and that when he subsequently went head-to-head with the likes of Hamilton and Alonso at McLaren, he was able to hold his own.

“I’m not going to sit here and apologise for what I achieved,” Button says firmly, but politely, when pressed on whether he feels fortunate to have enjoyed such a career. Even so, he’s fond of referring to himself as “just a boy from Frome” and more than self-aware enough to know how many talented racing drivers slip through the net. But there is no self-doubt. “I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and I think I’ve proved myself against some of the very best drivers of my generation. Some people look at pole positions to decide how good a driver is, but that isn’t how I see it – I look at points, and on that score I’ve beaten quite a few world champions in the same car. I don’t feel I need to prove anything.”

To his regret, Button’s F1 career petered out at the wheel of a succession of under-performing McLaren-Hondas. Coupled with the death in 2014 of his father, who had nurtured his son’s development from the age of eight and acted as his mentor and then soulmate throughout his racing career, everything that had framed Button’s life to that point had fallen away.

“You have to remember that F1 drivers have been winning races since [a young age],” says Button. “If you look at Alonso now, I don’t think for a second that he’d be racing at Indy or Le Mans if he was winning in F1. But successful racing drivers often know nothing other than winning. It defines their life up to the point it stops – and then what? Some get out, but clearly that’s not for Fernando, and it’s not for me either. I can’t imagine a time that I’ll ever stop racing. I need competition and I need a target – I need to be in an environment where I can make a difference. It’s fair to say that my interest in triathlons ramped up as the results in F1 dried up. I’ll race for as long as I’m asked to.”

Where that is remains to be seen. Button has more than half an eye on Le Mans for the foreseeable future, getting visibly animated as he talks up the proposed hypercar category in 2020, and throughout the interview goes variously into great detail on all the lessons of driving the heavy, powerful Super GT car has taught him, demonstrating a detailed knowledge of US prototype racing that suggests he is at least studying the category (and no doubt eyeing the potential for reduced travel), and talking about how he’d love to try Nascar and rallycross.

This, be in no doubt, is a man in love with racing. “I might not be an F1 driver any more, but I’ll always be a racing driver,” he says. “Even if I have kids, I’ll race – just closer to home.” The only blot on his horizon he’ll admit to is the onset of electrified powertrains. “I love Formula E, don’t get me wrong, and it has a place, but I’d rather noise remained a part of other motorsport,” he says. “Rallycross without popping and banging and f lames shooting out of the exhaust on the overrun? We’d all be losing out.”

As we all would if we didn’t celebrate Button’s success, I reckon. Unlike many in racing, he had no silver spoon on the way up and, like many, as he earned money he found ways to enjoy it that could rub jealous types up the wrong way. Yes, he’s had boats, cars and houses and, yes, he’s dated supermodels, but his closest friends have also always been there, often on Button’s payroll, and, when the opportunities arose to succeed, he delivered at the very highest level.

My suspicion is that he’s a pretty ordinary bloke bursting with loyalty, passion and an extraordinary talent – and anyone who loves racing should be pleased that he’s planning to be part of the sport for years to come.

Button’s road car collection: 

Jenson Button is nuts about road cars — and always has been. “Of course I know Autocar,” he laughs when I introduce myself. As a child he had three posters on his wall: Pamela Anderson, Bart Simpson and a Ferrari F40.

As he made money, he started buying fast cars: “The year I signed for Williams, I went to a Ferrari dealer and bought an F355. I wasn’t allowed to test drive it because I was too young for the insurance, so I had to sit in the passenger seat with the salesman. I’ve still got that car and I’ll never sell it. My only regret is that there was an F40 sitting next to it for not much more money . It would have been a far better investment.”

Since then, he’s scratched pretty much every itch you can imagine a racing driver could have for road cars, from a Bugatti Veyron to a Ferrari Enzo, limited-edition Porsches and more: “I’ll be honest, some I buy as investments and never drive. Most I buy because I like the idea, but to someone with my experiences they are rarely much fun to drive.”

The Veyron lasted just a couple of months: “I was in Kensington at some traffic lights, feeling like the man, and when I selected first it just ate the gearbox. I had to get out and push it out of everyone’s way.

A traffic policeman even refused to help, saying it wasn’t his job. This was a car that cost £5000 every time you needed a new tyre. I couldn’t enjoy it knowing that.”

After moving to LA, he went to an auction and indulged his inner petrolhead, returning with not one but three cars: a Trans-Am, a Chevy Bel Air powered by a 500bhp LS7 Corvette engine and a Chevy pick- up. “I’ve hardly driven them, but it doesn’t matter,” he says. “I love a lot of cars — some are expensive, some less so. But it’s not the point: the point is I love having them.

Jenson Button on…

Lewis Hamilton

“Midway through that first season [as team-mates at McLaren, in 2010], I was ahead of Lewis in the points. Did he like being beaten by his team-mate? Probably not. Personally, he was fine with me, but you could just tell he was a little bit peeved. I don’t think that I was to his taste, if I’m honest.”

Michael Schumacher

“He was a tough driver but he was always fair with me. He never took the piss when it came to racing; he’d push me to the limit but never over it. “A controversial character, for sure — just ask Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill — but it was always fun fighting with him. Especially when you put him in the rear-view mirror.”

Jacques Villeneuve

“At the [2003] season opener in Australia, he was supposed to pit on lap 30 and me on 31. However, Jacques had saved a bit of fuel through the first stint of the race and didn’t pit, even though they were calling him in. Instead, he deliberately came in on lap 31, knowing I wouldn’t be able to go any longer than 31 and that I’d have no choice but to pit behind him.

“Why did he do it? Partly mind games, partly because he wanted to beat me. But it was a dick move, and for a driver of his quality, a fairly incomprehensible one. With that one act of petulance, he turned the team against him.”

Extracts taken from Jenson Button: Life to the Limit, available from Blink Publishing

Read more

Button: why he's earned the right to stop on his own terms

Jenson Button to drive Honda Civic Type R in new lap record attempts

Jenson Button - a career in pics

Daniel Ricciardo talks contracts, confidence and his dream three-car garage

Join the debate

Comments
9

4 August 2018
If only more high profile high achievers were as candid...

4 August 2018

He drove for the most successful team in F1 history.   Brawn GP won every championship they were entered into!

 

Maybe not the quickest over a lap, but he's able to consitently lap and keep the car on the track.   That builds up points.

4 August 2018

 Book is pretty much the same, you can’t be a shrinking Violet in F1...

4 August 2018

What a top bloke, absolute legend. 

Had his detractors early in his F1 career but rightly proved them wrong and showed what a true and deserving World Champion he is.

4 August 2018
KL1002 wrote:

What a top bloke, absolute legend. 

Had his detractors early in his F1 career but rightly proved them wrong and showed what a true and deserving World Champion he is.

Totally agree, many think he was lucky to win with Brawn, I think he earnt it, he proved himself time and again, it wasnt often his team mates beat him in the points though his latter McLaren Honda years weren't great showcases of his talent. Will always remember his win in Canada, in the wet, from the back, where he harried Vettel into a mistake on the last lap.

4 August 2018
si73 wrote:

Will always remember his win in Canada, in the wet, from the back, where he harried Vettel into a mistake on the last lap.

That was a thing of beauty.  Vettel cracking on the last lap was the cherry on the top!

4 August 2018
DavidW wrote:

si73 wrote:

Will always remember his win in Canada, in the wet, from the back, where he harried Vettel into a mistake on the last lap.

That was a thing of beauty.  Vettel cracking on the last lap was the cherry on the top!

That still pops up in my memories to this day! Absolutely fantastic and can remember being so excited, happy and ecstatic when Vettel binned it under Button pressure after such a long race! Always liked JB - great guy!

4 August 2018

Fragility under pressure, weak spot of his for sure

4 August 2018

Button was the real deal. Not the best qualifier, but could out-race anyone in F1. Unfortunately he rarely had a car that allowed him to show his true talent (mostly the fault of Honda who he wasted 9 years of his F1 career on). It's a shame he wasn't in a Mercedes from 2014-2016, I think Lewis would have a few less championships.

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week