Jenson Button is buzzing, and not because he’s just come back from a run, when he picks up Autocar’s Zoom call.
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?’
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.”