‘Winning is a lot more sweet now’

Winning combo... Jenson Button with Brawn GP head Ross Brawn.-AP

Until last season, Jenson Button was just another also-ran — the perennial underachiever. But this year, he is destroying the opposition. He has won six of the seven races so far — a record equalled by only a handful of drivers. Formula One’s Nearly Man, who became the Nowhere Man, is now simply The Man. The F1 front-runner in a chat with Simon Hattenstone.

At 20 years old, Jenson Button was the envy of Formula One. He had everything — talent, youth (he was F1’s youngest driver), looks, easy charm and a name fit for an action hero. There was one problem. He couldn’t win a race. He made a promising start, finishing eighth in his first season in 2000, and rising up the ranks to third by 2004. It only seemed a matter of time. But still he couldn’t clinch that victory. It wasn’t until 2006, 113 races on, that he managed one. This was expected to be the turning point. But it wasn’t. For three more years he toiled without triumph. His car became more and more uncompetitive, he appeared to lose confidence, and nobody even talked about him any more once Lewis Hamilton, the new British uber-racer, emerged fully formed.

Who cared about Jenson Button? He was just another also-ran — the perennial underachiever with the aspirational name. The former boy wonder finished 15th in 2007, and 18th last year as Hamilton won the World Championship.

In December 2008, things reached a nadir when his cash-strapped Honda team announced it was quitting Formula One.

If nobody bought Honda, he would be left without a team. And why would any other team be keen to sign up a serial loser?

Fast-forward five months. Button is now not only racing, he is destroying the opposition. He has won six of the seven races so far this season — a record equalled by only a handful of drivers. Formula one’s Nearly Man became the Nowhere Man. Now he’s simply The Man. It’s a remarkable turnaround.

Button’s 29 now, six-foot tall, casually dressed, with unpruned facial hair which never quite makes the full beard. There is not an ounce of fat on him, and he’s smiling. Button has always smiled. The experts and cod-psychologists suggested that was his flaw — too easy-going, lacked the killer instinct.

“It would make an amazing film, wouldn’t it?” he says of his recent success. “You wouldn’t need to add the Hollywood bits in. They are already there.”

There is something so boyish, so guileless about Button. I’ve barely met him, and I’m already telling him to make sure he doesn’t screw up from this position. “I know! I know!”

But there is an intensity beneath the smile. Button is aware that six months ago it was more likely he’d be heading for the job centre than the chequered flag.

Despite another disastrous season (in the final race the car caught fire), Button was feeling optimistic at the end of last year. After producing increasingly useless racing cars, in 2007 Honda hired the legendary designer Ross Brawn, who helped Michael Schumacher to five successive F1 world titles. Brawn was already uniting a divided team, and Honda was finally building a car that could compete. In the close season Button got himself fitter than ever, bonded with his colleagues and talked up the future. Then he got the phone call.

“I’d just got off a plane and it was my manager saying, ‘Just to let you know, Jenson, we’ve got a bit of bad news — Honda have pulled out of Formula One.’ I didn’t believe him at first. Then you get that tingle down your spine. I was just silent on the other end of the phone. He said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t know another way of telling you.’ I was sat at Gatwick, waiting for my bags for about an hour, and I thought, what am I going to do?”

Did he think that was the end of his career? “Yeah, I did,” he says baldly.

In a bid to save Honda, Button insisted on a 50% wage cut (you needn’t feel sorry for him — even now he is paid £4m a year). Still no bidders.

On March 5, 2009, only three weeks before the season started and with Button and team-mate Rubens Barrichello resigned to a spell on the sidelines at best, Ross Brawn announced he had raised the capital to buy out Honda F1. The team was reborn as Brawn GP, backed by Richard Branson. On March 29, Button won the first Grand Prix of the season in Australia, and Barrichello finished second, in the new Brawn GP cars. World champion Hamilton qualified only in 18th and was eventually disqualified, and it was apparent that the McLaren car, which had seen off all comers a few months before, was now a no-hoper. Within a single race, Formula One had been turned on its head.

Button, who grew up in Frome, Somerset, was named after the Jensen car. His father, John, was a successful rallycross driver and second-hand car salesman, his mother, Simone, a housewife. His parents divorced when he was seven, and for him it was a blessing. For one thing, he was no longer caught in the crossfire of their arguments, and secondly it meant two sets of Christmas presents.

Who bought the better presents? “Well, Dad bought me a go-kart,” he replies instantly.

At 11, Button won all 34 races in the 1991 British Open Kart Championship. At 17, he became the youngest winner of the European Super A Championship. By 18, he had moved into cars and won the British Formula Ford Championship. After one season in Formula Three, in which he finished third, he progressed to Formula One, the highest form of auto racing with speeds of up to 220mph and engines revving up to 18,000rpm.

John Button followed Jenson out to Monaco — the F1 driver’s adopted home — to keep him company. He’s close to all his family, and says they’ve kept him sane in a stressful business. He looks at me. “Nobody believes me when I say it’s stressful.” He reckons outsiders think that the life of an F1 driver is dossing, nightclubs and the occasional drive, but he’s out there training most of the time.

“Do you know why we have to be so fit?” He doesn’t let me answer. “So we can get the ladies.” Button grins, enjoying his little joke. His resting heart rate is in the 40s (the average is 70bpm) and rises to 140-150bpm when he’s driving. No other sport puts such stress on the heart — many top drivers average 180bpm through a race and can hit 200bpm when coming into a heavy-braking corner — and it would kill most of us. “I’m a little more relaxed than some drivers.” Driving also places enormous stress on the neck muscles because of the gravitational pull when turning corners. Today, he looks perfectly proportioned except for a neck that could belong to the Incredible Hulk. “It’s a bit of a freaky neck. I have to buy bigger shirts in the season.”

A couple of years ago Button took up the triathlon — a hugely demanding endurance event featuring swimming, cycling and running races. He had begun to doubt whether he really was a sportsman. “I went into triathlons when things weren’t going very well. It was tough at the weekends, not achieving on the circuit. So doing the training and racing in triathlons was something to enjoy and to know it was all down to me, it’s not down to the bike or the goggles.”

It can’t have helped that Lewis Hamilton became the Formula One poster boy. He looks me in the eye. But it did, he says, you wouldn’t believe how much it helped. At last people didn’t care about him. “It was a great relief because we didn’t get any media. Everybody concentrated on Lewis. We didn’t have to deal with the press saying bad things because they weren’t interested.”

But you must have been jealous? He nods. “You would be of any world champion. If I had a brother and he was winning, I would hate it because I want to win. It’s all about me winning.”

Over the years, Button has taken a fair battering from his peers. His team-mate Jacques Villeneuve said he was better suited to a boy band than F1. In 2001, after he qualified 17th on the grid at Monaco, his new team boss at Renault, Flavio Briatore, asked him if it was true he was looking for a place to buy in Monte Carlo. When Button said yes, he remarked, “Well, would you mind not looking around during qualifying.” It was a comment that still stings. “It might be funny and it might be clever, but for someone within your team to say that ... It doesn’t do much for your confidence. And every interview after you’re asked the same question. Or told the same — you’re a playboy.”

And was he? “I don’t think playboy is the right word. In 2000 I bought a boat and a Ferrari, and I think I did get excited by being an F1 driver.” He looks sheepish. “I was 20 years old, you know, and the people looking after me were like, come on, you need to look like a Formula One driver, you need to feel like a Formula One driver.” But he knows he can’t just blame others. “I took my eye off the ball.”

There was certainly a time when his girlfriends attracted more attention than his driving. He was engaged to Fame Academy starlet Louise Griffiths, and his friendships with athlete Emma Davis and It Girl Beverley Bloom were fodder for the gossip columns.

The thing is, he insists, all this was the exuberance of youth, way back when, and throughout the long years when things were going so horribly wrong, he was doing everything right. He insists nothing has changed. He is driving no better than in recent seasons, he is working no harder. Sure, he’s never been fitter, but he was super fit anyway.

Look, I say, baffled, I don’t get it — how can Lewis Hamilton be so brilliant one year and so shit the next, and the opposite happen to you. “Shit!” He giggles. Has Hamilton become a rubbish driver overnight? “No, I think Lewis is driving well, and I actually think he has been driving better this year than some of last year.”

That doesn’t make sense, I say. “I know — it’s the situation I’ve been in for years.” So does that mean it’s all down to the car? No, he says patiently. But it’s a hell of a lot to do with it, and this year’s rule changes (to do with tyres, engine, aerodynamic downforce and any number of things I don’t understand) meant the F1 teams had to start all over again, so the ones in the lead lost their advantage.

He thinks the rival Red Bull car this year is faster than the Brawn. But even if you did have a vastly superior car, you still have to beat your team-mate — which he has done consistently this year.

Surely Formula One would make more sense if all the drivers drove the same car? Then we’d really know who was best. “Well, the sport wouldn’t exist,” he says.

Why not?

“Because you wouldn’t have any manufacturers involved.”

Ah, money — always at the heart of F1. But wouldn’t he enjoy it as a sportsman if they all started on a level footing?

“Yeah, I would. Yeah. It would be enjoyable. And a lot of us have been in that form of racing before. People would find it fun, but that’s not what Formula One is. It’s not an individual sport, it is a team sport. That’s why we have the constructors’ championship as well as the drivers’ championship.”

It’s such a paradoxical beast, F1 — the most individualistic of sports wholly reliant on hundreds of anonymous mechanics; the ultimate form of racing where it is often impossible to overtake and the winner is predetermined on the practice laps. No wonder Button likes the simple escapism of the triathlon.

After nine years of struggle, has it sunk in just what he’s achieved in three short months?

Well, he says, he has to win the World Championship before he can regard it as an achievement, but yes. “Winning is a lot more sweet when it’s been difficult before, that’s for sure. When I get into that car, I smile every time I close my helmet.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009