Jenson Button is buzzing, and not because he’s just come back from a run when he speaks with us.
The 2009 Formula 1 champion is in great physical shape, as always, and at 40 is bursting with excitement about the future. Now a father with a second child on the way, it has been four years since his full-time F1 career finally ended after 17 intense seasons, and while he’s enjoying life as a Sky F1 TV pundit, he’s looking far beyond the grand prix grids. A new career in team ownership is already under way and off to a flying start – and he definitely hasn’t closed the book on his life as a racing driver. As he reveals in our conversation, Indycar in the US is on his radar (he lives in Los Angeles), while GT3 endurance racing also holds a strong appeal.
Right now, it’s team ownership and a project dreamed up with his best friend, childhood karting buddy and business partner Chris Buncombe that’s keeping him pumped. “I’ve always loved the idea of running a team,” he says. “Seeing your team out there, it feels just as good when we win as it did when I won in the cockpit, which I never thought would be the case when I was racing. But when I finished F1, I just loved the team atmosphere of endurance racing, where you share everything with your team-mate to help the team move forward. So when Chris talked about the possibility of being involved with a team, I jumped at the chance. It was a fantastic idea. All the experiences I’ve had, both in the lower categories and in F1, mean I can point drivers in the right direction. Driving a racing car relies on natural ability, but the mental aspect is key to performance.”
Jenson Team Rocket RJN has taken its bow this year in the British GT Championship, running a McLaren 720S GT3 for a young, inexperienced pairing: esports racing convert James Baldwin and GT4 graduate Michael O’Brien. The team is run by Bob Neville’s highly respected RJN organisation, which ran Nissan’s factory European GT campaigns for most of two decades and for which Buncombe and his brother Alex both raced. But as Button says: “It’s not just my name on the side of the truck. I enjoy being involved.” His F1 TV schedule has kept him away from the races so far, but Baldwin and O’Brien were third in the standings after three rounds, following an astonishing win on the team’s debut at Oulton Park.
“I’ve always been very sceptical of sim drivers,” says Button of Baldwin. “Before I got into it, I just thought ‘it’s a computer game’. Then I started doing sim racing earlier this year, because of the lockdown (I spent a fortune – don’t tell my missus) and was amazed how competitive and quick the sim racers were. I spent hours and days on a sim and got pretty good, but I’d still be half a second off a sim driver. I thought: ‘Hang on a sec, are they good because they’ve driven this forever, or are they actually good but haven’t had the opportunity or funding to step into a real race car?’
“So when Chris said we had the opportunity with James, instead of questioning it, as I’d have in the past, I was really positive. We knew he was a complete novice, but he’s just taken it all in his stride. At Oulton, he ran an inch over a white line and lost pole position. He would have got pole in his first professional race, in a GT3!
“He’s definitely impressed me. But the first year in anything is the easiest year, because you can make mistakes and get away with it. The second year is always more difficult, and that’s the big thing for James, and also Michael, who doesn’t have a lot of experience either. It’s about working with them through this year and putting them in a good position for next year.”
Button is taking this personally, and it’s all in the team’s name, which is a nod to his wonderful and much-missed father John, who died in 2014.
“Even in my first years in karts, we were doing pretty well,” explains Button. “Dad was running me as a proper father-and-son thing and he was tuning the engines. His were definitely better than those that came straight out of the box. Others then said ‘would you mind tuning mine?’. This was going to pay for some of the racing, so he started Rocket Motorsport. His engines went on to win a lot of British championships in Cadets and Junior TKM. These engines were £250 at the time, and he’d flog them for £1500 or more. He wasn’t the only person to do it, but it was mad what they would go for. There were a few that had won British championships, and they would go for double that price. “It stopped when I got to F1, because he wanted to travel and be a part of the F1 circus. But also he couldn’t deal with the dads any more! That was the most stressful part of the job. So the name disappeared. I thought it would be lovely to bring it back. A lot of people remember Rocket, because Dad either tuned their engines or they were beaten by them.”
Button isn’t shy about his ambitions for his team. “I love endurance racing, and that’s where Chris and I want the team to be,” he says. “It’s not just about outright pace of one single individual, it’s a proper team effort. We would love the team to be racing at Le Mans, to race against the best. That has to be an aim. Why wouldn’t it be?”
Meanwhile, he’s itching to get back into something quick himself. “I’m going mad right now, not driving,” he says. “I left F1 in 2016, which is crazy – already four years ago. I did two races in 2017, one at Monaco in F1 [as a substitute at McLaren for Fernando Alonso, who was racing in the Indianapolis 500] and one at Suzuka, the 1000km in Super GT. And the past two years I raced in Super GT, which I loved [see below].
“It feels like 10 years since I’ve driven anything, and it’s just eight months. But it’s difficult to find something I’d enjoy and can really sink my teeth into. Le Mans is going through a strange period. I love the idea of the new LMDh regulations, but that won’t be until 2022, and which manufacturers are going to be involved? We just don’t know. I’ve been doing loads of karting, which is the only thing I can do, and it’s kept my reactions sharp to keep up with the 17-year-olds. I want to race, it’s just about which direction to go.
“There were a couple of opportunities to test in Indycar,” he reveals, “but they fell through because of the pandemic. I’d be really interested to race on street circuits in Indycar, but ovals don’t float my boat. There’s also GT3 racing, although I’ve never driven one, while Le Mans is still there.” Button made a short-notice debut at the 24 Hours in 2018, driving a BR1 LMP1 for SMP Racing, and was surprised by how much he enjoyed it. “At Le Mans, your age doesn’t matter if you’re still hungry,” he says. “I’m still super-fit and I’m hungry.”
Button was always a pleasure to deal with, from his early days out of karts until the end of his F1 career in an uncompetitive McLaren-Honda. But his relaxed, sunny disposition always belied the fierce competitive streak that drove him. “You have to be very single-minded in F1 – very selfish as well, and I don’t mind saying that now,” he says. “I was a very selfish person. Everything had to be about me, because I had to get the best out of myself. I had a physio, a manager and a PR who all worked for me to make my job easier so I could do my best on track. Now the world is a very different place, because I have a child.
“You can’t be the person you are in F1 when you have children – at least I couldn’t be – because suddenly you’re not the most important person. I’m loving the experience, even if it was a shock to the system initially. It’s amazing seeing him grow. Having a family and a home, I’ve never had it before, because in F1 I was always on the road. You see things differently. The first couple of years out of F1, I didn’t have any direction to go with my life and work, but there have been some really good opportunities in the past six months, which is great. I’m really looking forward to the future.”
Still, it all comes back to the driving. “I love everything I’m doing – the team, the TV work – but I need to find out where the driving fits in,” he says. “I have to race. I’m a racing driver. It’s always been my life and it’s what I’m best at.”
Button on Fernando Alonso’s F1 comeback
“He’s tried other motorsport, but nothing probably compares. Outside F1, racing is very different – much more down to earth, which I like. He’s probably going to come back a better driver and will have a lot more respect for the sport as a whole. You’ll see a better Fernando in terms of how he goes about his business. It’s cool he’s coming back to Renault [now Alpine], the team he won two world championships with, and it’s great for the sport. He’s definitely still got it at 40. I’m that age now; I remember my dad’s 40th birthday and thinking ‘that’s so old’, but it’s so not. As long as you keep on top of your fitness and the love for racing is still there, why not? Having had a few months off, I know it’s still there for me.”
Button on racing in Japan’s Super GT
In 2018, Button shared a Honda NSX-GT with Naoki Yamamoto in Japan’s Super GT series, winning the title at his first attempt. “What I loved about Super GT is you had 15 cars that on their day could win a race,” he says. “One of the best texts I got was from [three-time Le Mans winner] André Lotterer, who never actually won the title he fought so many years for – and I won it in my first year. It really annoyed him! I probably drove better in my second year, but we weren’t so competitive. It was a shock to the system, going from F1, the pinnacle of luxury and hospitality, to Super GT, where there’s none. I was sat on the back of our truck on a deckchair, and that’s it. There’s nothing else. It brought me back down to earth, which isn’t a bad thing.”