Jenson Button: “I don’t miss Formula One”
In this exclusive interview, F1’s elder statesman talks to us about the future of EV, life in LA, his latest campaign for Hackett London, the difference between winning a grand prix and a world championship, and why he’s not slowing down any time soon…
An encounter with Jenson Button can be a cruel thing for your own self-regard, the type of occasion that makes you question all the choices you’ve made up to that precise moment, from your bachelor’s degree to the fit of your trousers to whether or not you needed that extra cube of sugar with your macchiato or why you’re even drinking a macchiato instead of a protein supplement. The transatlantic Zoom call we’re both on beams the Formula One champ from his Los Angeles home to my laptop in east London, his user screen framed by a bookshelf thronged with motorsports paraphernalia – the keepsakes of a life intertwined with the fast lane – and a face that only a mother and half the world’s population could love, a complexion so polished and well versed in interacting with a camera that it appears to glow from within, like a Grecian temple at dark.
Button, 42, whose seventeen-season Formula One career concluded in 2016, seven years after clinching the world championship for Brawn GP, is currently plugged into the rhythms of what he calls his second life, on the West Coast with his wife, Brittny Ward, a model, and their two children. “It’s nuts here,” he says of his adopted city of LA. “Everyone is in a rush to get somewhere, but I don’t know where they’re going. Where we are, it’s close to the coast, we’re ten minutes from the beach, which is really nice. And we go into Malibu and… we’re very lucky,” he says with the timbre of a man who’s married to a model, is close to the coast, lives ten minutes from the beach, goes into Malibu, is very lucky – and knows it.
It’s been six years since Button’s high-octane, heavy-metal, rock ‘n’ roll, tyre-to-tarmac career finished at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. A go-karter since at least he was eight, Button was, along with Lewis Hamilton, a lodestar driver of British Formula One racing, known for a style that some have labelled as ‘silky’ or ‘economical’, which is to say a pragmatic driving approach that minimised wasted movement, and one who was a lynchpin in Britain rediscovering its place within the series, following the barren twelve years that ensued after Damon Hill’s world title in 1996. To better place Button within the sport’s landscape, he was also part of an esteemed generation that included Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, all multi-championship winners.
Today, although Button’s career is no longer confined to the cockpit, it has bloomed and dovetailed in myriad ways. To append to his already colourful resumé, he is currently tasked with a senior advisor role at Williams, the team with whom he began his career as a 20-year-old fledgling, in 2000; and last year decided to partner with television present and motor specialist Ant Anstead and car designer Mark Stubbs to revive Radford, a company famed for its coach building and restoration works on four-wheel classics. “You feel part of the car and it puts a smile on your face. I want driving to be exciting again and not stressful, like a lot of people find it,” Button says.
Still a bankable character, Button has also reversed his position in relation to the camera, swapping the thunder-in-the-stomach rapture of the driving seat for the live-wire intensity of broadcasting as an expert analyst with Sky Sports. A more recent venture has seen him enter Extreme E, a genre-bending off-road series that brings all-electric SUV racing to outlying terrains beset and buffeted by climate change, an undertaking whose pursuit is to draw attention to the issue. (With at least one driver having to be female in the two-driver pair for each team, the sport is also attempting to address the issue of gender imbalance in motorsport.)
Button, who began his Extreme E career as a driver, but has since focused on his duties as founder and principal for the JBXE team, acknowledges that the sport has made improvement since its debut last year, citing that the suspension technology has had some much-needed tweaks – “They were kind of like bucking broncos when we started, so you’d hit a bump and it’d flick up, which shouldn’t be the case for an off-road vehicle, but there’s been a lot of changes to the suspension, it’s helped a lot, which is good” – and that it’s the battery technology where we’re going to see a massive improvement over the coming years in terms of size, heat reduction and charging capabilities. A hydrogen element will also add further diversification to the sports (an Extreme E offshoot hydrogen series is slated to begin in 2024). “Who knows what the future is going to be,” Button says on what supply of power will be the blanket standard in motorsports for decades to come. “I don’t think any of us really know if it’s going to be EV, hydrogen, biofuels. But it’s great that all these experts are trying different things.”
However, when it comes to whether F1 will soon be at the tilting point of becoming all-electric, Button’s opinion is direct. “Formula One is obviously the pinnacle of motorsport, best drivers in the world, best manufacturers in the world. But, I think if you turned around and made them EV tomorrow, they’d become very heavy – and that’s exactly what you do not want. Also, you wouldn’t be able to have an hour-and-a-half race, because it [the cars] would be the size of an SUV to get all the battery packs in it. So no, it’s not going to happen in the near future,” he says. “I like the way that they’re working with biofuels [the current F1 season has seen the introduction of E10 fuel, a composite of ethanol and fossil fuels]” he continues, “also, people forget that these engines that are used in F1 are the most efficient engines on the planet… But yeah, I don’t see F1 going EV anytime soon.”
As previously alluded to, time spent with Button doesn’t do many favours for the ego – even if it is via a retina screen, its sharpness and clarity acting to only accentuate nice features, a benefit that Apple says “dramatically improves your viewing experience.” It is fitting, then, that he is the face of British clothing retailer Hackett London, whose recent collection centres around soft tailoring and even softer tones. “I might live in the States, but I’m definitely trying to be an English gentleman,” says Button, who goes on to extol the virtues of a decent-fitting suit, before we fade back to the petrolhead chat.
“I don’t miss Formula One,” he says, sanguinely. “It’s at the pinnacle of the sport, but I don’t miss 23 races travelling around the world.” You have to be very selfish, he tells me – selfish in the way that everything during the entire F1 calendar is planned towards the driver just being able to focus on race weekends, with everything regimented, scheduled with surgical-style precision, so that his only concerns are with media commitments, exchanges with engineerings, and, of course, pushing the workhorse-on-wheels to its extreme. “It’s kind of a dangerous place to put yourself… I came into Formula 1 at 20, and when I left at 36, I hadn’t really learned a lot about life… I had to do a lot of growing up”.
That’s not to say that Button doesn’t, like many sportspeople who’ve also left behind the trappings of a life with go-fasters stripes, have an ache to get behind the wheel entirely, as his races and triumphs in Super GT attest to, as does his appearance at Le Mans – “that one didn’t go so well” – and he’s “raced in things here and there”, and, the day following our interview, it was announced that he is slated to compete in Rallycross, like his late father, John, this summer. And although he first caught himself wondering about his sense of direction initially after retiring – “I am playing with my son and my mind wonders: ‘What am I doing? Am I a stay at home dad? What is my direction in life?’” he told The Telegraph, last summer – it seems that the F1 itch is seemingly scratched: “I felt like I’d completed everything I set out to do [when he retired]. There was nothing else to learn. Whereas this [exploring other motorsport genres] is a big learning curve, you know, pushing the boundaries, if you like.”
Still, with Button, the elder statesman of F1 and whose career can be measured in mega watts, the topics of nostalgia and the hot-seat can’t exactly be circumvented. Throughout his career in the sport, Button had stints with the likes of Benetton, Renault, Honda, Brawn and McLaren, landing fifteen grand prix wins and 50 podiums, amassing a total of 1,235 championship points, the tenth-most in the all-time list. Race wins, according to Button, provide “that massive adrenaline hit”, a real buzz, a quick rush of elation, a bugle call to the heart and soul. Winning a world championship, however, was a different story – “It was more of a relief. It’d been a tough year, a great year at the beginning, and then sort of a slump through the year, and then a great ending,” he says. “But when you wake up in the morning, you think, ‘Damn, I’m a world champion”, you don’t think about the race wins. So the world championship lives with you forever. And I’ll never be a former world champion. I hate it when people say that. I am a world champion, you can’t take that away from me!”
At the time we speak, we are three races into the current F1 season, and the day beforehand Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc had taken a dominant victory in the Australian Grand Prix, the then latest blow to misfiring rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
“I’m massively surprised,” says Button, who, before the start of the current campaign, had considered Mercedes as the early favourites, but now sees the dial being turned. “Ferrari have nothing to lose, they put everything into 2022. And when you watch the car, on the straights, it looks horrific because of the porpoising, but actually through the corner it looks beautiful to drive… Ferrari has just been plain sailing, good on ‘em, they’ve done a great job. And I don’t think I see it changing anytime soon… Ferrari still has more time in the wind tunnel than Mercedes, as does Red Bull. So it’s going to be tricky for Mercedes to come back.” (Days before this interview was published online, Hamilton finished 14th at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, leaving him seventh in the table, 58 points off leader Leclerc.)
Button briefly touches upon the other plot lines that are padding out the season, notably the continuously evolving king-and-challenger-to-the-throne dynamic between Mercedes teammates Hamilton and George Russell. “Well, George has come across as a very big team player, which is great,” Button says. “Two great drivers are better than one in terms of setting up a car and also the feedback that the team needs to improve the car. So everything’s good at the moment. Atmosphere always changes when you’re fighting for wins. That’s normally when you go from being best buddies to fierce competitors.”
Button indeed knows what it’s like to go to the brink with Hamilton, having spent three seasons at McLaren with the driver who many consider the greatest ever. But now that part of Button’s career is over, he’s a different man, he’s a father, he’s been there, done that, most likely bought the annoyingly flattering muscle-fit t-shirt, his advice and counsel now sought after from manifold angles.
“I probably haven’t quite got the balance right,” he says of his current in-tray. “I would say I’m probably a little bit too busy at the moment. But, you know, I’ve jumped at the chance to work with great people. So my wife definitely understands if I’m away from home more than she would like… she understands that we’re building for the future.”
Settled down? Perhaps. Slowing down? Seemingly not.
Now read our interview with F1 driver Max Verstappen…
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