One of the most popular Formula One drivers to attend the Festival of Speed this year was Jenson Button. The man is a British (big tick at all times) previous F1 World Champion, affable and intelligent, so a crowd pleaser when it comes to explaining what goes on inside the head of an F1 driver.
GRR caught up with him on the Thursday before the British Grand Prix at Honda HQ in Bracknell. Most important question first: how was it, driving the Senna McLaren up the hill at Goodwood this year? Big grin. ‘It was a really special experience,’ he says. ‘I drove it to the start line and span the car round, which you’re allowed to do if the wheels are moving. The engine sounded amazing, and going through that little six-speed gearbox… And it was even better because I caught Stirling Moss at the finish line, and he’s a legend.’
At the risk of wiping the grin off his face, I approach the thorny issue of his Formula One performance this season with McLaren Honda which has, let’s face it, been dismal. Recurrent engine problems have resulted in several non-finishes and McLaren being ninth out of ten in the Constructors Championship. A podium finish looks to be out of the question for the rest of the year. How does he view it? ‘As you might have noticed, it’s been tough,’ he says wryly. ‘It’s painful, but that’s part of the process. It’s a very special partnership that will win in the future, but we’re doing our testing at Grands Prix which is always difficult in front of the media.’
How on earth does he manage to stay positive? ‘I’m the most impatient person in the world,’ he says. ‘But when I believe in something and spend a lot of time with the team, it excites you.’
And he does seem genuinely enthused, if not exactly excited, by the thought of another Silverstone without a win, or perhaps even a finish.
‘This weekend is gonna be a tough one,’ he concedes. ‘We’ve put everything in place, and we’re aiming for points and to put on a good show.’
‘There is no team that will challenge Mercedes this year,’ he tells me. ‘But I’d rather be in a position where we can challenge them in the future.’
Who’s the best team boss he’s ever had? ‘Dave Richards was very good at building a team,’ he says. ‘I don’t tend to swap teams very often, just because I have trust in people and like to grow together as a team. But Frank Williams was the best, I think.’
While we’re looking back at his career, I wonder if he’s done much karting recently. ‘I’ve only been karting once since F1, in 2007 when I was racing with Honda. I fractured two ribs driving it, which wiped me out for an entire season of winter testing, so I haven’t done it since. I do miss it. Karting for me is the closest thing to F1. It’s proper, pure racing: you have 50 guys who are good.’
Will he, I ask, follow in the footsteps of former F1 colleague Mark Webber and race at the Le Mans 24 Hours next year, if his contract with McLaren is not renewed at the end of the season? ‘I love Le Mans,’ he says. ‘I watched 17 hours of it this year. Everyone loves it because it’s so different; it’s a very tough team race. Every driver would love to be in it.’ As for whether that will include him… ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. You have to live in the moment. Who knows whether I’ll be in Formula One? I don’t want to look too far ahead.’
Meanwhile, he’s big on triathlons, with his own event taking place the weekend after the British Grand Prix. He doesn’t often eat carbs, if he does, it will be brown rice or sweet potatoes, but in the main he sticks to protein (plus the occasional banoffee pie and bread and butter pudding…). ‘I’m not a big fan of the gym,’ he says. ‘I’m a very outdoorsy person. I want to go to Iron Man but I’m not able to train for that.’ He’s had to make do with half Iron Mans, running the marathon in an impressive 2 hours 52min and trying to copy what his wife, model Jessica Michibata, does in the way of core stability exercises. ‘It always looks so much easier when a girl does core,’ he moans. ‘My missus does a lot so I copy what she does.’ He also cycles a lot round his Monaco home with the Tour de France pro riders, and is intent on catching up with Wimbledon this year.
I’m exhausted at the thought of all the fitness he does. As I leave, he asks if I’ve seen or driven the new Honda Civic Type R yet. Yes, at Goodwood recently, funnily enough, I tell him. ‘Oh did you?! You git,’ he says. ‘I only got to drive it here.’
I can’t believe I’ve actually made an F1 driver envious. Better quit while I’m ahead.