Jenson Button was under no illusion about his chances of being among the three drivers on the podium at the Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix on the night of Sept 24. The Briton’s McLaren car had been a whiner all season and was not in the same league as those championship leaders Mercedes had rolled out.
In fact, the MP4-29 the British squad produced for the 2014 season was a lemon and struggled against teams like Williams and Force India, which they had previously put away with ease. But the McLaren was still good enough to rake in some points that, at the end of the season, would be converted into dollars by the sport’s commercial-rights holders Formula One Management. The points are worth tens of millions of dollars for their operational budget next year.
At the Marina Bay Street Circuit that night, Button reckoned he was good enough for fifth at the tail end of the 61-lap race. He would have bagged 10 points and delivered a decent payday for the team. McLaren were banking on him, as teammate Kevin Magnussen was locked in a battle for 10th spot with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Williams’ Valtteri Bottas. That fight was worth only a point and was getting too close to call.
But, just as it seemed Button had his race wrapped up, it fell apart on the 52nd lap when his engine suddenly wheezed, then died, just in front of the Esplanade. He had been chasing Williams’ Felipe Massa and, in the heat of similar battles when a driver is forced out of the race that is not of his own doing, flared tempers are not uncommon.
But not for the 34-year-old. He calmly steered his car out of harm’s path, got out of it and walked away. Later at the paddock, the 2009 world champion even managed a quip and a smile, when asked about his thoughts on what happened. It was classic Jenson Button. In 14 years of racing, he has never kicked a tyre in frustration or dressed down a team for his car’s shortcomings. It would take some digging to unearth any evidence, if any, of this.
The only time he came close to “losing it” was in the run-up to winning the 2009 championship, when a British journalist questioned his hunger for the title. But, even as he appeared irritated, he retorted with the kind of wit that left many impressed.
“Does Jenson want this title or not? It’s a pretty silly question, isn’t it? Why am I here?” Button had answered rhetorically. “In reality, that is not the question. It can’t be. ‘Does he want the title? No, I want to finish second or third’.”
After a career spanning 15 years that includes a world title, 15 Grand Prix wins and 50 podium finishes, he has reached the tail end of his career. He arrived in Formula 1 in 2000 as a 20-year-old, when Sir Frank Williams, owner of the Williams team, decided to sign him on to race for them. While some then considered him too young to race in Formula 1, others gushed over his talent and compared him to legendary three-time world champion Ayrton Senna.
Although he became the youngest driver to score a point with a sixth-place finish in Brazil, his early years were a mixed bag of fortunes. He had to make way for Colombian superstar Juan Pablo Montoya midway through the season and was forced to join the Benetton-Renault team but, in time, developed a reputation as a driver with the smoothest skills on the grid. He also gained renown as a party-loving playboy but, despite the detractors, this never lessened his hunger to win on track.
As a focus of the British media, Button’s life on and off the track was scrutinised, and they harangued him about his ability to be world champion. But, with typical British calmness and wit, he took them on and this endeared him to a growing army of fans. When his talent finally flourished and drove him to the world title in 2009, the media harassment stopped and the Briton suddenly became the de facto spokesman for all things Formula 1.
But it is the ability to speak his mind and engage interlocutors with some humour that sets Button apart from most drivers and makes him an interesting subject to chat with. When the McLaren driver sat down with The Peak in an exclusive interview four days before the Singapore Grand Prix, he displayed a side of him seldom seen in public. He was not in the garb of a superstar Formula 1 driver decked in a racing suit, just before strapping up in a race car. Nor was he the laidback figure in comfortable attire chilling out in the paddock.
Instead, he was dapper in a grey three-piece Hugo Boss suit. In the sweltering heat and humidity of the Lion City, it was unreal. But he had a sponsor’s engagement on his schedule and the German fashion house has been a key partner of McLaren since 1981. “I love traditional suits like a three-piece suit and they’ve been able to fit me with the styles that I like,” said Button. “Most of the time, I am very casual and walk around in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops but, when I dress up in an evening suit, I love to dress up properly. A good suit fills me with confidence, just as a bad suit really hurts your confidence.”
But he pointed out that life for a Formula 1 driver is not as glamorous as people think. That lifestyle in reality belongs to the select few who pay a prince’s ransom to wine and dine with fine cutlery and china, in the prestigious air-conditioned Paddock Club, while watching him and racing colleagues cross swords at 300kmh.
“It is different to what people probably perceive the sport to be as a racing driver, you know this luxurious lifestyle that we lead. But it is very different to that. Obviously, I do live in Monaco, which you can say is a glamorous place, but the only places I see there are the mountains, sea and coast, where I run, cycle or swim. I use it as a base for fitness,” said the Briton, who has a taste for Italian and French reds, especially Bordeaux.
“It is a different lifestyle that drivers had in the 70s, because, now, we always have to look for new areas to improve ourselves. You are looking at fitness, you are looking at nutrition, the mental aspects of Formula 1. There is a lot of work, always ongoing, to improve yourself as an individual, as a driver and as part of the team as well.”
At his age and after 15 years of racing, first with Williams, then Renault, BAR-Honda, Brawn and McLaren, isn’t it time to start planning for life outside of Formula 1? Racing against fitter, younger racers, most top drivers withdraw. After all, for the last five years, Button had been hunting to land a second title with the storied team that had produced 12 drivers’ and eight constructors’ titles since their debut in the sports in 1966, but it has been a futile effort.
But, just before arriving for the Singapore Grand Prix, he underwent a rigorous mental and physical test at Glaxosmithkline’s (GSK) lab and it revealed his 1.82m frame still packs a lot of power. And, despite all the hard work that he has to put in as a Formula 1 driver, he considers it the best job that every kid dreams about.
“I am fitter and lighter than I have ever been. My reactions are still good. I had the GSK test and I was the best of anyone they tested. So, 34 years old is definitely not all for Formula 1… I can’t see myself without Formula 1 because it has been an integral part of my life. Everything I do is to be a better driver.”
Button is one of a lucky few to have those that matter to him by his side most times. Argentinian-Japanese model Jessica Michibata travels to every Grand Prix he races throughout the year and he spends considerable time with her. But he misses his dad, John, who was a constant presence in the McLaren garage until he died at his home on the French Riviera, aged 70, in January this year.
“I think of him every day, because he is the person I see most in my life. He travelled to every race and was the life and soul of Formula 1 for me. He especially loved coming to the Singapore Grand Prix because he used to have a lot of fun here. Me, I went racing and was focused, but he experienced this city for what it is. I sort of live through him, in terms of experiencing the Singapore city.”