Jenson: The early years
There aren’t many people who can claim to have a road and a pub named after them in their home town. Jenson Avenue and The Frome Flyer both honour the child karting sensation that became Formula 1 world champion. The story of Frome’s most famous inhabitant began on 19 January 1980 when Jenson Alexander Lyons Button was born, with a name synonymous with cars and racing.
His father John (a European Rallycross star in the 1970s) was friends with Danish racer Erling Jensen and changed the ‘e’ to ‘o’ to distinguish his newborn from his fellow racer and the British sportscar manufacturer.
Living with his mum Simone, and three older sisters Natasha, Samantha and Tanya, the easy-going Jenson showed a burgeoning interest in racing outside his studies at Selwood Middle School. In the year his parents split up (when Jenson was eight) he received a 60cc go-kart for Christmas that quickly satisfied his quest for speed.
At the Clay Pigeon kart circuit in Dorset a young Jenson entered his first race in the pouring rain and emerged from the gloom victorious. His feel for grip and superb throttle control (both hallmarks of his future career) proved he had a special gift behind the wheel.
With his kart packed in the rear of a white transit van, the following years took John and Jenson Button up and down the country, taking on and beating the best in the British karting scene. Funding was self-made as John built up a business tuning kart engines.
In 1991 Jenson was simply unstoppable. He won all 34 races he entered to dominate the British Cadet Championship. The following year he won national and open titles in Junior TKM; then the British Open Kart championship for a third time in 1993.
Having told his father he would one day become a Formula 1 world champion, Button Sr knew that if he was to succeed, he had to take on and beat the best European racers. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly, but at the age of 15, Jenson Button was taken out of school and moved to Italy.
“A lot of big names in karting are from Italy so it was important to head out there to get to know everybody.”
“A lot of big names in karting are from Italy, the teams, the chassis manufacturers and the engine specialists, so it was important to head out there to get to know everybody,” says Jenson.
And the gamble paid off. He won the Senior Italian ICA Series first time out and was also the youngest vice-champion of the Formula A World Championship. The language barrier didn’t prove to be a problem either, although he did learn a little local lingo.
“I could speak to the mechanics about the chassis, that was fine,” remembers Jenson. “But the biggest problem was they all spoke English so it made it very difficult to learn Italian!”
For 1996 Jenson Button joined Team GKS-Lemmens using works Tecno-Rotax karts, but after such a prominent rise in the sport, he was suddenly struck with his first setback.
“We had a great season in 1995 and managed to persuade the governing body, the CIK [Commission Internationale de Karting] to progress to Class A for 1996,” adds Jenson. “But the tyre regulations changed and the kart wouldn’t handle. I struggled virtually every time out – it was a nightmare.
“That year was probably the worst I’d ever endured results wise. The previous season I took on [karting champion] Giorgio Pantano in America and was 0.3 seconds faster than him in the time trials, but then we suffered seized engines and problems early on.
“At the end of the year someone in the team I was driving for had the bright idea of taking a hacksaw to a rear chassis tube. It transformed the kart and it was compliant again.”
Despite that “lost” 1996 season, the following year Jenson was back on track winning the European Supercup A Kart Championship (the youngest and also the first British driver to do so) for Team GKS Tecno Rotax Bridgestone. The success meant he joined an illustrious list of Super A champions that included future F1 stars Jarno Trulli and Alex Zanardi.
It was apt the 17-year-old also won the Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup in Suzuka. His former entrant Paul Lemmens had been asked to name the three best drivers he had ever seen. His response was: “Not three. Two. Ayrton Senna and Jenson Button.”
The youngster from Somerset had taken on and beaten the best in the world. But now there was a problem. If he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming world champion he needed to race single-seaters. His career hung in the balance unless he found the backing to pay for it…