Jenson: The Junior Formulae
If Jenson Button wanted to pursue his dream of becoming Formula 1 world champion, he had to graduate to single-seaters. But his career risked stalling unless he found the finances to fund his expensive quest.
A saviour emerged in the form of racer-turned businessman David Robertson and his right-hand man Harald Huysman. With their knowledge of racing and acumen for spotting talent, they helped Jenson with the £90,000 he needed to make the progression to Formula Ford. In return they would take a percentage of the youngster’s future earnings.
It was a gamble, but impressed by his karting prowess and self-confident yet easy-going demeanour, Robertson and Huysman struck a deal for Jenson Button to race for Jim Warren’s Haywood Racing operation in FF1600. Despite testing a Carlin Motorsport F3 Dallara at Pembrey, his new managers wisely advised that Formula 3 would be too much of a jump at this stage, so in 1998 he entered Formula Ford and reacquainted himself with his former karting rivals, which included pre-season favourite Dan Wheldon.
Jenson drove the Mygale chassis (that faced strong opposition from the new Van Diemen) and immediately set the pace in his transition from karts to cars. His excellent reputation even created a stir when he first went out on track at the Thruxton season-opener.
“I had been quite fast in testing so when I went out to qualify at the first race the first few laps were a nightmare because every lap people were slowing down, then following me to see what lines I was taking and that was slowing me down,” recalls Jenson. “I came in after just ten minutes and told the crew there was no point going out because I could not get a good lap in. I waited for the last four minutes of the session and then went for it.”
His natural talent allied with his calm head worked wonders. Jenson Button had qualified on pole position for his first ever car race, just a tenth of a second off the lap record…
He finished his first weekend with a podium finish and established himself as a championship favourite in his debut season. With his sights firmly set on Formula 1 his managers (with the help of the photographer Keith Sutton) organised a trip to the 1998 Spanish Grand Prix that May. He entered the hallowed Formula 1 paddock for the very first time and met influential characters such as Sir Frank Williams and Bernie Ecclestone.
While he was in touching distance of his ambition to reach F1, Jenson Button had to ensure he kept his young feet on the ground and finish the job of winning his first car championship. Something he ultimately did with ease, taking nine wins en route to the TOCA Slick 50 Formula Ford 1600 crown.
“A lot of people told me there was no chance of winning in my first year, well I’ve proved them wrong!”
“A lot of people told me there was no chance of winning in my first year, well I’ve proved them wrong!” said Jenson at the time. “Due to the closeness of the racing, Formula Ford is a great training ground for the higher categories. But it’s different after racing karts abroad. In Formula Ford whenever you go to pass someone, they seem to block you and I can’t believe the officials don’t do more about it. I can’t stand blocking and yet I’ve been told off by the team I’ve driven for, for not doing it! I’ve always thought that if I was fast enough I shouldn’t have to do that.”
At the blue-riband Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, the final showpiece race of the season, Jenson Button was battling Marcus Ambrose for victory in the final when the pair touched. Another example of ‘blocking’ perhaps?
“He [Ambrose] left the door wide open. I went for the gap on the inside and he turned in,” said Jenson at the time. “But you don’t want to come second in the Festival, so Ambrose obviously did the right thing. It’s win or nothing in this race...”
Success in Formula Ford led to his first association with McLaren. Jenson was nominated and won the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year award and at the Grosvenor House Hotel that Christmas he was presented with a cheque for £50,000 and the present he’d always dreamed of – a test of a McLaren Formula 1 car.
The next step of any racer’s schooling is Formula 3 and Jenson Button joined Promatecme for 1999. Having tested for Serge Saulnier’s team at Magny-Cours over the winter he struck a deal to race for the Renault-powered outfit in British F3.
Given his natural flair in wet conditions (dating back to that very first kart race aged 8) Jenson stunned the opposition by planting his Dallara on pole position in the pouring rain at the Donington Park season-opener. It was the beginning of another strong championship campaign, in which Jenson took three wins (at Thurxton, Pembrey and Silverstone) and despite not having the most competitive car in the field, impressed with his confident and assured driving.
The natural step was a second year of F3, but throughout his career Jenson has always been eager to test himself in a higher category. So it proved again as the 19-year-old tested with two FIA Formula 3000 teams at Jerez and eyed up grand prix racing’s official feeder series.
Then he was invited to test for Alain Prost’s F1 team and after dazzling with his swift, smooth pace compared to regular driver Jean Alesi, the Somerset racer began to attract the attentions of a few more influential F1 figures.
At the end of a long year and back in his home town of Frome, Jenson was in his local pub enjoying a few Christmas drinks with friends when his mobile phone rang. At first he thought it was someone playing a joke, but the caller was deadly serious. Jenson Button listened very carefully. His life was about to change forever…