Jenson Button is the most experienced driver on the 2014 grid and at this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix he celebrates his 250th race – 80 of which have been with McLaren-Mercedes. Here, talking exclusively to McLaren.com, Jenson reflects on 15 consecutive seasons at the top echelon.
You’re only the fifth driver in history to reach this milestone. What does it mean to you?
JB: “It means I’ve been around for a long time! I’m very happy with my career, even though there have been highs and lows. One of the things I’m most proud of is the way I’ve stacked up against my team-mates. I’ve had 10 of them in 15 seasons, so I’ve needed to prove myself to the new guy sat beside me virtually every year. It’s a very funny sport in that respect because even after everything you’ve achieved, you’ve still got to prove yourself time and again.”
Jenson’s first team-mate, in 2000, was Ralf Schumacher. Then came Giancarlo Fisichella (2001), Jarno Trulli (2002), Jacques Villeneuve (2003), Takuma Sato (2004/’05), Anthony Davidson (Malaysia 2005), Rubens Barrichello (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09), Lewis Hamilton (2010, ’11, ’12), Sergio Perez (2013), Kevin Magnussen (2014)
Which of your 15 victories to date would you rate as your best?
JB: “The first one – Hungary 2006 – was pretty special because the conditions were tricky and it meant a lot to win my first race. Canada 2011, when I went from last to first and overtook Sebastian [Vettel] for the lead on the final lap, was another special one, as were my wins at Spa in 2012 and Suzuka in ’11. If I had to pick one victory as my best, I’d say Japan. Suzuka is such a special racetrack and the year in which I won, in ’11, just after the tsunami, made it particularly special.”
Can you name your best qualifying lap to date?
JB: “My pole lap at Monaco in 2009 was pretty awesome, as was my lap at Spa in 2012 when I was 0.4s quicker than everybody else – and I didn’t have a bad team-mate at the time (Lewis Hamilton). There’s also my first pole position, at Imola in 2004. To drive a V10-engined F1 car around that track was amazing because you were on the ragged edge all the time and you couldn’t afford to make a mistake. If I had to pick one lap, it would be that one at Imola.”
What’s the best track you’ve driven on?
JB: “That has to be Imola – a proper circuit. It has a great flow to it and I like the way you clamber over the kerbs. You use all of the circuit because it’s narrow, but you don’t go over the track limits because it’s unforgiving. When you get a lap out of the car there, it means a lot because you know you’ve really had to push the limits.”
Unsurprisingly, given his affection for the track, Jenson has a good record at Imola. He started on the front row twice, despite never being in a genuine front-running car, and stood on the podium twice. He finished second to Michael Schumacher in 2004 and came home third for BAR-Honda in ’05, before being excluded from the results for a technical infringement.
What’s been your best overtaking manoeuvre?
JB: “There have been a lot of them because I’ve been around for 15 years! But a few stand out: in 2006 I overtook two people around the outside of Turn 6 at Interlagos, which was pretty exciting because it’s a quick corner. I also went around the outside of Adrian Sutil and Felipe Massa at Austin last year. That’s been my move: going around the outside of two people! There was also Fernando Alonso at Hockenheim a couple of years ago. We had a 10-lap battle and it was real wheel-to-wheel stuff. That was probably the best battle I’ve had during my career. There was respect, but we were pushing the boundaries.”
Jenson and Fernando’s paths have crossed on and off the racetrack. When Jenson was racing for Renault in 2002, Fernando was the team’s test driver; Fernando then inherited Jenson’s race seat when Jenson switched to BAR-Honda a year later
Can you think of a race where you deserved more recognition than you got at the time?
JB: “Spa 2013 was a very good race for me. I finished sixth, but managed to hang onto the cars in front and was only 13s behind third place at the chequered flag. I don’t think our car deserved to be that competitive, so that was a very special race. There was also Brazil 2009, the race at which I won the World Championship. I finished fifth, but got everything out of the car because the Brawn wasn’t quick in the dry and I battled through the field from 14th. All anyone focused on at the end of the race was the championship, but that was one of my best races.”
What’s been your most embarrassing moment in an F1 car?
JB: “Probably China '11, when I drove into the wrong pitbox. Even when I was stationary in the Red Bull box & the mechanics were waving me through, I still thought I was in the right place! I remember asking myself, “what’s the matter with these guys?”, & then realised what was going on.”
When it comes to pitting in the wrong pit box, Jenson is in good company. Lewis Hamilton did exactly the same two years later in Malaysia, while racing for Mercedes
What’s your favourite corner?
JB: “Piratella at Imola. It’s a very quick left-hander, just before the circuit drops down to Acque Minerali. It’s such a rush when you go through there and get it right. But corners don’t make circuits; it’s sections of track that make circuits special. The Esses at Suzuka is one such place. When you exit them at the top of the hill and breathe for the first time, you ask yourself what happened. Becketts at Silverstone is another classic section. Then there’s Spa, which is just one big flowing corner.”
Who’s been your best team-mate?
JB: “The most interesting and exciting team-mate has been Lewis. He was very up and down emotionally, but always super-fast. He’s very talented and it was great having him alongside me. He was very quick in qualifying and there were days when I’d look at his lap time and say, “I don’t know how he did that”. But there were days when I beat him and they felt very special. In terms of race pace there wasn’t much between us and we both had to do the perfect job to beat each other.”
During their three years as McLaren team-mates, Jenson scored 15 more points than Lewis (672 to 657), but Lewis took more victories - 10 to Jenson’s eight
Who’s been your best rival?
JB: “The best ones are those who I’ve been racing the longest. That means Fernando [Alonso] and Kimi [Raikkonen], and [Mark] Webber was one of them too. And of course Lewis. With all of those guys it’s tough racing; you push the limit, but you always know the fight will be fair. It’s not the same with a lot of the new drivers.”
Can you name the best McLaren that you’ve raced?
JB: “That has to be the MP4-26 from 2011. It wasn’t the prettiest car, with its u-shaped sidepods, but once you’d got used to the blown diffuser it was a bloody quick car. The 2010 car was also special, with its F-duct, but the best has to be the MP4-26.”
Jenson won three races with the MP4-26, including his memorable victory in Canada, in which he came from last to first, and he finished second to Sebastian Vettel in the World Championship table. Surely one of his best victories.
What advice would 250-race Jenson give to first-race Jenson?
JB: “To take the rough with the smooth. Like most F1 drivers, I didn’t experience much rough en route to F1 and it was only when I got here that I had to learn to deal with it. You’re going to have frustrating days, but it can turn around tomorrow and you’ve got to be ready for that moment.”
Tell us one lesson that you’ve learned over the years
JB: “It’s not a lesson, but the nicest thing anyone ever said to me came from my dad. He said: ‘You might not be the quickest driver in the world… but you’re the best.’ Those words meant a lot, and they still do.”
When you eventually retire from F1, is there anything in F1 that you’ll miss?
JB: “That moment when I close my visor and head out of the garage. The driving’s the bit that I love. When Dave [Robson, race engineer] comes on the radio and says, “Bite point find, three burn-outs and launch”, that’s what it’s about. It’s just you and the circuit. I’ll miss that.”
Jenson is already the fifth most experienced driver in F1 history, behind Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Riccardo Patrese and Jarno Trulli. By season’s end he’ll have overtaken Trulli and Patrese; what chance him pipping Barrichello’s total of 326 starts one day?