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FADE TO GREY – JENSON BUTTON’S YEAR AWAY FROM F1

Jenson Button at the wheel of his McLaren Honda in 2016 - Photo: LAT

Jenson Button at the wheel of his McLaren Honda in 2016 – Photo: LAT

Jenson Button is taking a year away from racing in 2017 but he will still be involved with McLaren Honda

By DAN KNUTSON

JENSON BUTTON is looking forward to his grey year in Formula 1 in 2017. To put things into black and white, Button will not be racing in Formula 1 next year, but he will still be heavily involved in McLaren Honda’s Formula 1 effort, and he will be racing albeit in other series.

This is Button’s 17th season as a Formula 1 driver, and he sat down with Auto Action to talk extensively about his past, present and future… starting with that grey 2017 sabbatical.

“I will not be racing in F1 next year because I don’t want to race,” he explains.

“I want to have my own schedule. I will be coming to a few F1 races. I have a lot of experience of working with the team and in Formula 1 from a driver’s point of view. But you take a step back and you see things that you maybe wouldn’t see as a racing driver, and there are areas of this team that I still think need to be improved. With my experience I can definitely help in that area. I will spend time at the factory. So I will basically be helping build the team not the car because I won’t be driving the car so that doesn’t matter to me. I will do some simulator work to stay current in case I am needed. But basically I don’t want to race next year in Formula 1. That is the whole point of this sabbatical.”

From a psychological point of view, is Button ready to see his car in the hands of another driver – specifically Stoffel Vandoorne who replaces him as Fernando Alonso’s teammate in 2017?

“I don’t care because, if I don’t want to drive it, I am not going to stop someone else from driving it,” Button replies.
It was at the Belgian Grand Prix in late August that Button walked into the office of Ron Dennis in McLaren’s massive hospitality unit and told his boss that he wanted to retire.

“As a racing driver you think of it as black and white – you are either racing or you are not,” Button recall.

“I said, Ron I want to retire. I think it is about the right time. I can’t put this pressure on myself any longer. I need a break. And he said: Don’t retire; we will sign a contract for two years for you to be back in the car in 2018. I thought, fantastic – that is not black and white, it is grey, and so it is perfect. At the moment I don’t want to be racing next year. After three or four months I might think: Wow! I am ready to come back. But it matters how much fun I have next year doing other things.”

Looking into the near future of next year, where would he like to compete?

“I might do Super GT in Japan,” Button says.

“I might the 1000km in Suzuka with Honda. It could be fun. We are talking about it. I would like to do Rallycross somewhere around the world, whether it is in America or the FIA World Championship, which is amazing at the moment. You have two rally world champions: Sébastien Loeb and Mattias Ekström. There is so much talent there. And the Global Rallycross in America is good fun as well; probably not as competitive but still bloody good with some really good teams like Andretti Racing. We will see. There are lots of options and lots of fun things that are a lot more relaxed. I probably won’t do a whole season of anything, but I will do a bit of racing to keep my hand in but also because it is what I love and that fight is definitely there inside still.”

A WHOLE CAREER IN ONE YEAR

The time between the 2008 and 2009 seasons was anything but relaxed for Button. That was when Honda very unexpectedly and suddenly pulled the plug on its Formula 1 programme. Ross Brawn and Nick Fry put together a consortium to save the team thanks in large part to McLaren and Mercedes agreeing to supply the new Brawn outfit with Mercedes engines. Then, of course, the new team arrived at testing with its new car that was massively quicker than the competition, and Button went on to win the 2009 world championship. What was the secret to the car’s success?

“People always say the Brawn won because of the double diffuser,” Button says. “No. The double diffuser was a great way for people to think that was the reason why the car was quick. That is absolute rubbish. The car was just a great car in every way. But people didn’t look at the rest of the car because they looked at the diffuser and said it has a double diffuser, which no one else has. Well, actually, Williams and Toyota did, but people forget that also.”

Brawn’s domination lasted less than half a season unlike Mercedes’ current form.

“We never had the margin that Mercedes has had the last three years,” Button laments, “and it is a shame because people think we did. We had to fight. We didn’t have the funds to go racing. The first six races were amazing; the guys did a good job and the car was very good. From then on, however, we did not develop it, so it was a really tough season.

“Mentally it was so challenging because you had a big points lead, and suddenly you saw the lap times of everyone dropping, and yours stayed the same. So mentally it was a really, really tough season, but also an amazing season. So much emotion, a rollercoaster, it was basically my whole career in one year. The amount of emotions, the positives and negatives, was really tough.”

BAD CARS

The 2009 Brawn was obviously one of Button’s favourite F1 cars (he owns one, as does Brawn) but which were his least favourite F1 cars?

“The last few years have been tough,” he reflects.

“With the downforce and tyre package we have in F1 it is not fun like it was five, six years ago, or even longer, which is a shame. Hopefully next year the guys will have more fun with the cars.

“But the most difficult car was in 2001. That Benetton was pretty tough, and I couldn’t get to grips with it because I had driven a Williams in 2000 which was an easy car to drive. I didn’t really do any set-up work in 2000, didn’t learn a lot, and thought that talent was enough. And then I drove a car that was tough in 2001. I couldn’t drive it and I couldn’t set it up. So I had a difficult year. I was alongside Giancarlo Fisichella who was immensely talented but also immensely talented at driving bad cars. He was very good at driving bad cars, and setting them up. So it was a really difficult year for me. You have got to have them, and I learned a lot and 2002 was a much better year.”

TEAMMATES

Button’s teammates have ranged from Ralf Schumacher, in his rookie season with Williams in 2000, through to Fernando Alonso in 2016 at McLaren in his 17th season in Formula 1. Auto Action asks Button to recall some of his various teammates.

“Jacques Villeneuve and I did not have the connection at the start of our racing career together,” Button says, “but by the end of the year we were good teammates. We got along really well. I spent four years with Rubens Barrichello and it was a good partnership. He’s an intelligent guy and a lot of fun. He knew how to set up a car; he’s probably the best guy for setting up the car. And you can understand why Michael (Schumacher) won so many championships having Rubens as a teammate at Ferrari. So he was great and I still stay in contact with Rubens. I see what he is doing with karting, and he’s having so much fun. I think he is working harder now than he ever has in motor sport.

“Lewis (Hamilton) was obviously a great time, and it was also when the car was competitive, so we were always fighting for wins. Basically, if I moved over for Lewis in 2010 or ’11 or ’12, he probably would have won the championship. And the other way around: if moved over for me, I would have won the championship. But that is the thing – you have got to have two competitive teammates, and that is what racing is all about: beating your teammate and fighting your teammate.

“Over one lap you would have to say that Lewis [Hamilton] is probably the quickest when his head is in the right place. But with Fernando [Alonso] he is always there in the race. Whether he is in front of you or behind you, he is always there. You never do a race without seeing Fernando. You might have a fantastic race and you beat him, but he is still right behind you. And that is the thing with Fernando, he never lets up. He is always giving maximum attack.”

Jenson Button celebrates his maiden Grand Prix victory - Photo: LAT

Jenson Button celebrates his maiden Grand Prix victory – Photo: LAT

TEAM FAMILIES

Button spent seven years with the BAR/Honda/Brawn team and seven years with McLaren. Which team is home for him?
“I have won more grands prix with McLaren, but I have actually competed in more races overall with Honda,” he says. “Honda is the manufacturer that I have been with the longest – 2003 to 2008 and 2015 to 2016, so I definitely feel part of the Honda family. It is a very fun manufacturer/engine supplier to work with. They are very passionate. They are obviously not where they want to be, and that hurts them a lot because they are very passionate about motor sport. But also understanding how they work and also knowing where they could be in the future makes it very exciting. So I have really enjoyed my time with Honda.”

GOLD STARS

Button’s racing career, in Formula 1 and elsewhere is not over, but looking back on his career up until now does he have any particular regrets?

“Never,” he responds instantly. “We all make mistakes and I have definitely made my fair share of mistakes. But what is the point of looking back? You can’t change the past, so live in the moment or look forward to the future.

If he was a schoolmaster, what kind of grade would he give his whole career?

“Always A plus, always positive, and gold stars,” he said. “We all have weaknesses and it is a matter of understanding your weaknesses. I know that I am not the quickest driver in the world consistently through a year. But as my father used to say, you might not be the quickest but you are the best. It is about making sure that you are strong in every area, and working on your weaknesses but also working on your strengths”

If Button is not the fastest driver then who is?

“If you look at me against my teammates in qualifying, for example Lewis Hamilton was quicker than me,” he says. “Fernando Alonso in the last two years is about half a tenth quicker than me on average. But I know that I can put it right in the race, and I know that through working in a different way I can show my strengths.

“No one is perfect and no one ever will be in Formula 1. The mind games that go on, and the mental strength that you need, well, not every driver has it. Lewis is unbelievably quick but he was not leading the world championship and I personally thought he should be. Some of it is mechanical failures; some of it is other things as well for him. So we all have weaknesses. If one guy comes along that does not have any, the rest of us are f***ed!”

Button then adds: “Okay, that is a good one to end this on.”

And that brings an end to this interview with Button – who is nowhere near the end of his career.