Jenson's True Colours
In his 16th F1 season - still standing, still fighting, still silencing the non-believers - Jenson Button keeps on proving he's one of the sport's truest competitors
This interview might never have happened.
Unlikely though it seems, given the sense of permanence surrounding Jenson Button's presence at McLaren - 102 races and counting - his F1 career looked to be over at the end of 2014.
After five seasons with the team that had become his spiritual home, eight wins, a sackload of points and a reputation as F1's classiest operator, time was about to be called, it appeared, by Ron Dennis, McLaren CEO and chairman.
You'll recall that the mood was turbulent at McLaren last year, following Dennis's return to a position of executive influence back in January 2014. Barely a month after that bombshell, Eric Boullier joined from Lotus in the role of racing director. Myriad further personnel changes followed, as part of an extensive (and ongoing) internal restructure. Then, last August, former team principal Martin Whitmarsh left, after 24 years' service. There was a change of engine partner to manage, too - a significant one, with former ally Honda back at the bulkhead in Mercedes' stead, marking the end of a relationship that stretched back to 1995.
McLaren's tectonic plates were surely shifting, and it seemed that the career of Jenson Button, one of Britain's most successful and widely respected racing drivers, might fall through the cracks, as the team reset and reshaped.
With Fernando Alonso's services privately secured for 2015, the choice being made behind the mirror-shade exterior of the McLaren Technology Centre was between JB and their talented 2014 rookie Kevin Magnussen. The cards fell Jenson's way, but only after an unseemly delay. Someone close to the negotiations memorably described Jenson's position, as he waited for a decision, thus: "Ron's like a kid focusing the sun into a 'death ray' with a magnifying glass - and Jenson's the insect in the beam."
It was one of the most unedifying periods in an F1 career that extends back to first tests in 1999, but Button weathered it, as he has weathered so many other storms over 16 seasons. From the troughs of a dire Benetton-Renault back in 2001 (Autosport magazine called it Jenson's "year of hell"), through two woeful Honda factory team years in 2007-8, to the unforgettable epiphany of his 2009 title with Brawn, Jenson has seen it all. And, like the hardened Ironman competitor he has become, he has found ways to endure, prevail and survive - not simply for survival's sake, rather because he believes that at 35 and with 272 grands prix notched up, he still has a role to play as a top-line F1 driver with a leading team. He gives short shrift to any who might doubt his ambition: "I have a team-mate alongside me who's regarded as one of the best in F1 history," he says with a steely grin. "With a team-mate like that, it's not just about trying to do the best job you can in your car against the rest of the field. You have your team-mate to judge yourself against. It's a great position be in and it's exactly what I want at this stage. It keeps me massively motivated."
Up against Alonso, how could Jenson be anything but motivated if he wants to prolong his F1 career? Fernando is a ferocious, political animal, intent on achieving the third title he believes one of his talent should attain.
Unsurprisingly, Button assesses himself and his fellow F1 lion as respectful of each other's abilities - but not close: "I haven't spent much time with Fernando," says Jenson. "Last year I saw him a couple of times in a dark club somewhere where we had some fun. Apart from that I don't see him away from racing, even though we have similar interests."