Button promise victory theatrics
JENSON Button has promised his fans something to go with their burgers and fries if he wins at Silverstone this Sunday: doughnuts.
Harking back to his best memory of the race, when Nigel Mansell won in 1992, he smiles and says: “If I win this time, I definitely wouldn’t bother employing me for the next race... I’d be celebrating hard for a week!
“When you watch races from the Eighties and Nineties, it’s an amazing atmosphere. Remember when Nigel won and ran over that guy on the track after [his victory]? The fans are a big part of it all, and we need them to survive. You can’t do those track invasions any more because of health and safety, but they’re amazing to watch. And we aren’t allowed to pick up flags any more, and it would be nice to do that, too. So if I win I would be doing doughnuts even if they aren’t allowed either; I wouldn’t care about that by that point.”
Compared to his McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who’s had a troubled time this year, Button is in a very happy place right now even if his car isn’t always as competitive as a Red Bull and his chances of driving around in circles on Sunday are minimal. But winning the world championship back in 2009 definitely relaxed him. It gave him status and validated him as a racing driver, after years of struggling in mediocre cars following a brilliant rookie season with BMW Williams in 2000. Now he appears super-relaxed most of the time - though Monaco proved a stress high point - a man at ease with himself and his place in the Formula One firmament.
In his private life he is settled and happy with model Jessica Michibata, who travels to most races with him. After all the management upheavals of his early years, his decision to employ Richard Goddard proved very shrewd. When he signed up in 2006, the amiable businessman told him: “Don’t pay me until the end of the season. Then, if you think I’ve done a good job, pay me what you think I’m worth.”
Quite a remarkable modus operandi by Formula One’s usual grasping standards, but then Button himself is quite a remarkable fellow. Their joint decision to switch to McLaren for 2010 was as prescient as had been the decision the previous winter to hang on in the desperate hope that Ross Brawn, Nick Fry and their partners at Brawn really could pull the fat from the Honda fire which had petered out.
That leap of faith ultimately won him the crown, just as surely as the move to McLaren helped him to avoid the wilderness in which Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher find themselves in the Brawn team, now owned by Mercedes.
While home-grown Hamilton provides the fireworks and some spectacular opportunism at McLaren, Button is the perfect anchorman. He’s said he wants to end his career there, which is why rumours of a possible switch to Ferrari to partner Fernando Alonso seem wide of the mark. He’s clearly very happy where he is, and McLaren love him the way they do Hamilton. He’s fast and smooth, very easy on his tyres, provides strong feedback and a calming influence, doesn’t criticise the team in public, and rarely makes mistakes. Though inadvertently taking Hamilton out of the recent Canadian GP was definitely not his finest moment, he made amends with a spectacular Hamilton-style drive to victory from last place.
But the clock is ticking, and there’s one crucial gap in his life. Winning at home.
“It seems that every interview I do now, people talk about how many more years are you racing, when are you retiring?” he joked recently. “But I’m only 31, so there is a lot of life left in me yet, and hopefully quite a few more British Grands Prix. I still want to achieve more. I want to win more races, I want to challenge for more world championships. This year, I’ve had some great races and I’ve really enjoyed it, and that’s the most important thing.
“Getting the win in Canada was very special for me, and that will definitely keep me going for quite a bit longer in the sport in terms of excitement and really wanting to get back to that. It becomes very addictive, winning, and you really miss it when you haven’t got it.”
Earlier this week he tried out modifications to his McLaren in the team’s simulator in Woking, ahead of the ban on off-throttle blown diffusers which comes into force at Silverstone and may weaken Red Bull’s challenge. “I found out what they were and how they felt. I’m a lot more positive, but I still don’t know where we’re going to be in terms of pace when we get there,” he said afterwards.
He’s raring to go, and at last weekend’s Goodwood Festival of Speed dispelled concerns about the knee he banged falling off a jet ski while competing with Hamilton in front of BBC cameras the previous Tuesday. “I’ve just got a little niggly pain and it’s not worth pushing it,” he said. “I want to relax it for the Silverstone grand prix.”
So what would winning there mean for the man whose greatest successes are coming towards the end of his career?
“The British GP is a big gap in my trophy cabinet,” he says with a chuckle. “Actually, I’ve only just started putting some of my trophies in the cabinet in the house, the rest are in storage. It’s the one I would love to win. It’s the one that’s missing in the cabinet, but it’s not so much for the trophy as for the British fans.
“Canada was so special, but the British race is even more, and I’ve never been on the podium there.”
He was fifth in 2000 with Williams, 15th and 12th in his years with Renault, eighth in 2003 with BAR Honda, then fourth with them in 2004 and fifth again in 2005. His Honda years reaped only a 10th place and two retirements, while troubles in qualifying restricted him to a 14th-place start last year, which he converted into another fourth after a strong recovery. The lack of success rankles, especially when he’s heard all the stories of how it feels to win at home from the likes of Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert, David Coulthard and Hamilton. Nice guy he might be, but Button will do whatever it takes for a slice of that.
“Everyone wants to win their home grand prix, or at least be on the podium,” he says. “I’ve been close a couple of times, and last year was pretty close. It was disappointing not to get there.
“Because of the support we get, Silverstone is so special to any British driver. Last year the whole paddock, in the grandstands, people watching on banks, it was just full of rocket red caps. Seeing the support was unbelievable. So yeah, it would be nice to get a podium, but it’s going to be tricky. We’ve got to focus on bringing some good improvements to the race to have a chance of that. I was in the factory on Wednesday, and drove the simulator, so hopefully we’ll turn up with a good package.
“I’d love to have a good result in front of the home crowd. Winning would be out of this world, but even being on the podium would be special.”