Jenson Button: why I race
“Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”
This famous line, uttered by Steve McQueen in the 1971 movie ‘Le Mans’, provides perhaps the most succint summation of the racer mentality.
Why do we go racing? It’s a near-impossible question to answer. In this occasional series, we ask some of McLaren-Honda’s most famous names to lift the lid on what drives them to compete.
“Driving a car fast doesn’t get me excited,” says Jenson Button, the glint in his eye still dancing with an intensity that belies his age and experience.
He warms to his theme: “That’s not why I race; that’s not why I’m still in Formula 1 after 17 years.” He pauses, as if he’s taking in afresh the flurry of sensations that keep drawing him back to the cockpit. “It’s the wheel-to-wheel fighting, when sparks fly and you’re jostling for position. That’s what I enjoy. That’s the most important thing for me.”
It’s always been the case for the 2009 world champion. Even at the age of seven, when his father John first bought him a go-kart, it wasn’t enough merely to drive around the back yard. He needed something more than an aimless point-to-point between drain covers, and that came in the form of competition. As soon as Jenson started racing, he became hooked.
“I loved it from that moment on,” he says, and not even the mind-bending performance of an F1 car changed his motivation. A charge through the field to victory was always more valued than a brilliantly constructed qualifying lap, or a well set-up car. “It might sound strange,” he says, “but I don’t get that much pleasure from physically driving the car, and I don’t find it that physical. I compete in triathlons to explore my physical limits; racing for me is just that: racing. I do it because I want to beat everyone else.”
Were the 19th century biologist Charles Darwin alive today, he might claim Jenson to be a disciple of his Theory of Evolution. Darwin believed in the survival of the fittest; he thought life was a competition in which the strongest members of society reaped the greatest reward. There are few more competitive environments than F1, a sport that chews up and spits out those not strong or adaptable enough to survive. Equally, it fetes and celebrates those who can prosper.
“You race to win because the feeling you get when you cross the line first is amazing,” he says. “Especially if you’ve had to do a lot of overtaking to get there, like I did in Canada . It’s really special, knowing that you’ve just beaten the best drivers in the world.”
Jenson has won 15 races in his career, all of which have been special, emotional and significant moments in his life. His rendition of Queen’s “We Are The Champions” when he sealed his world title in Brazil 2009 was another highlight. But no driver can win every race, and Jenson’s focus and unerring motivation has given him a longevity that sets him apart from other drivers.
“We all want to win, but you don’t have to win to get the satisfaction of beating another driver,” he says. “Besides, you’ve always got your team-mate to beat. Even when you’re not racing at the front, pulling off a good overtaking manoeuvre – one that’s been planned several corners in advance – is always satisfying.
“But I take nothing for granted; I know I’m very privileged to do what I do. But the reason I’m still here is down to a lot of hard work. There’s no secret and there are no short-cuts; if you want to be the best, you have to give everything all the time.”
But F1 is too multi-faceted for success to be achieved exclusively through hard graft and a fighting spirit. To become a serial winner, as Jenson is, takes talent, and that’s not easy to spot from outside the car, because most of what a driver does is hidden from view. Engineers speak of a driver’s touch points – his hands, his feet and his back side – and the manner in which he exploits each one is reflected in his driving style. Lewis Hamilton, for example, hustles a car with his hands, rallying the steering wheel with intense and frequent inputs and corrections; by contrast, Jenson uses his feet to get the most from his car.
“Jenson is like a swan,” says his McLaren-Honda race engineer Tom Stallard. “He’s very smooth with his hands, which is the bit you can see on television, but his feet work like mad on the pedals. He balances the car with his feet a lot more than other drivers, and he seems to do it effortlessly.
“A classic Jenson performance was his pole lap at Spa in 2012. His hands would have you believe that he was out for a Saturday afternoon drive, but his feet were working like crazy on the pedals, modulating brake and throttle inputs, and the result was pole position.”
To combine tap dancing feet with the smooth hands of a surgeon on the steering wheel sounds an impossible task. But one of the remarkable things about Jenson is that he doesn’t need to psyche himself up to do it; he can slip into the tight confines of his MP4-31’s cockpit while engaging Stallard in conversation and joking with his mechanics.
Equally, during a race, it’s not unusual for Jenson to ‘make a phonecall’ to his engineers to discuss tyre strategy, question calls from the strategists and make useful suggestions – all from the cockpit at 200mph. The Herculean task of controlling the car is more visceral than intellectual, it seems.
And it’s this adaptive way of thinking, coupled with the way in which he modulates the brake and the throttle, that gives him incredible feel of the front and rear wheels, making his driving style devastatingly effective in changeable conditions.
“I enjoy the way that the car changes during the course of a race,” he says. “As the fuel burns off and the grip from the tyres changes, you have to change what you do and I think that’s one of my great strengths. It might also explain why I’m particularly good in changeable conditions. It doesn’t really apply during qualifying because the car is more or less the same for the entire lap.”
But this talk of driving style only helps to explain why Jenson is such a good driver; it doesn’t add any extra meat to the bones of why he races. “That’s because there is no more meat,” he says. “It’s very simple: I love competition. Without it, I wouldn’t be here.”
May the best man win.