Jenson Button: the long interview
Jenson Button has had an enviable F1 career, and he remains a familiar and much-loved figure to all those who work in and follow the sport. But next year, for the first time this millennium, he won't be lining up on the grid for the season-opening grand prix. Here, exclusively in F1 Racing he tells us why
Wearing a neatly pressed, blue-check shirt and black slacks, a tanned Ron Dennis holds the microphone to his lips. The assembled journalists, seated on the top floor of McLaren's glass-and-silver paddock edifice, fall silent in anticipation. Then Ron speaks. "Jenson, I believe you've got something to say..."
Over the course of the next 20 minutes the world learns that Jenson Button won't be racing in Formula 1 next year. His 16 consecutive years of driving in the top flight of the sport have come to an end. His dream is over.
Replacing him is the quick, talented Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne. The once youthful, boy-next-door Jenson Button, now 36, has been usurped by a fresher, leaner, younger hot-shoe who is 12 years his junior. It's the unfortunate reality that will hit us all one day.
But, wait. That's not the full story. Jenson hasn't quite been handed the carriage clock and pension letter; there is more to this revelation. Ron takes the microphone once more: "To avoid any confusion, forget the word 'retirement' - that's not in the vocabulary," he clarifies. "Jenson is one of the team's drivers for the next two years and if he's needed for any reason - he'll drive."
Confused? Ron has just announced Stoffel Vandoorne will partner Fernando Alonso at McLaren next year but that Jenson also has a new two-year deal. In 2017 Button will be an ambassador and reserve driver for the team, and, in 2018, if McLaren take up the option, he'll be back in the car, presumably to replace Alonso when his three-year contract expires.
McLaren's press release describes the line-up as "innovative." Afterwards, various paddock figures express their own views about this tripartite agreement, ranging from it being "a fudge" to "a win-win for Ron."
Five days after the announcement in Monza, Jenson is back at McLaren's Technology Centre playing a role he's well versed in: that of the corporate ambassador. Today, guests from Exxon Mobil have descended upon Woking for a guided tour of the glass-and-steel Norman Foster-designed campus. They swoon over the display of historic racing cars on the lakeside Boulevard and are charmed by the smooth-talking, 15-time grand prix winner...
...We leave the Mobil 1 executives milling about in the MTC's basement juice bar and take a glass lift upstairs to a room where JB has deposited his possessions. There's a laptop on the table, a banana skin on the side and, in preparation for his significant milestone, some sort of commemorative model car with a '300' clearly visible. Then he begins to explain to us exactly what's going on...
Jenson Button: Next year I'll be an ambassador for the team, so I will be at races. I'll spend time here at the MTC and I'll do stuff in the simulator and work with a few of the sponsors. I will still try to help them develop the car from the outside. I think it will be quite interesting to step back and see what I've missed for so many years and there will definitely be things I learn that I can put to good use in 2018. Apart from that, I don't know what I'm going to do.
For me, having the free time is what I need in my life right now. I'll spend more time with friends and family. I might race something. Cars? I will do triathlons and hopefully qualify for the 70.3 Ironman World Championship. That's one thing I want to do, so I'll come back super-fit. I'll be even fitter than now if I do come back to race again in 2018.
Jenson's triathlon fascination dates back to the eve of the 2006 season, when he spent time in a training camp in Lanzarote. Working with his then trainer, Phil Young, Button took his fitness to a higher level through triathlon competition. The '70.3' Ironman championship denotes total mileage covered in the race: a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and then a 13.1-mile run.
As a professional athlete who has been pushing himself competitively every fortnight for the past 16 years, Button is likely to find lack of competition unsettling. Triathlons will help fill that adrenaline-fuelled void. As would racing elsewhere. Button earlier said to an Esso guest that his former team-mate Barrichello had recently competed in the world karting championship, at the age of 44, and that he'd like to copy him by also returning to his racing roots. There's been talk, too, of Japanese GTs and Le Mans - so would sportscars be an option?
JB: It does appeal and I love the camaraderie, the team effort and the passion. And after 24 Hours of Le Mans, there's the celebration whether you've won or not. I have interest in that and if the right team and situation was available I would - but that won't be over the next two years.