As Jenson Button approaches the end of 2016 and the start of a new chapter with McLaren-Honda, we caught up with a few of the people who have worked closely with JB over the past 7 years and get an inside view on what it's been like working with Formula 1's 'Gentleman Racer'.
McLaren-Honda racing director
“What makes Jenson special is his capacity to gather people around him to fix any issue he has; to find the right support to go faster, and to be on top of everything he has to do.
“Something I also found special from him is that, even if he has a tricky weekend, he can switch off everything and still deliver in qualifying and the race. He’s a perfectionist, and he likes things to be done perfectly. He knows he will be able to deliver, once he’s got the package. That might make him a little bit more, let’s say ‘pointy’ in terms of setting up the car exactly for his window, but at the same time you know he’s going to deliver.
“He’s very easy to work with, very professional. He’s a fantastic team player. I think he likes the promotional side of the job – media and communications – and the sponsors love him. He’s still going to have an active role with us, and it’s a flexible role. Clearly he will be part of the team. We expect him to bring his experience in many, many different fields. It’s good to have an external eye, and I think any criticisms will be very constructive. I think his advice will be very, very useful for us.”
McLaren-Honda technical director
“We’ve got two great drivers in Fernando and Jenson. When you have two drivers, and you’re able to really trust their opinion, whenever one of them’s not quite perfect, you’ve got a really good benchmark with the other driver. And it’s not always the case that Jenson is struggling, we’ve had times this season where Fernando’s had an off-day, not quite got the performance out of the car, and yet Jenson’s really been on it and been really strong.
“We learned over the years that Jenson is a very smooth driver, but he likes a car that makes him feel confident. There have been occasions when the car was not quite right for him, or the tyres were not quite right, and he struggled a bit. But when the car was right and when the tyres were right, he’d extract the most out of it, and we could depend on him to do that.
“Over the past couple of seasons the drivers have been very, very professional, and you’ve got to admire both Jenson and Fernando. They’ve been critical in the right way; they’ve pushed us hard as a team; they’ve pushed Honda hard as a manufacturer, but what they’re not doing is openly complaining to the press.
“Both are used to getting podiums, winning races, winning world championships, so it’s obviously been frustrating. That’s what I admire about both of them – they know they’re here to do a job and they are getting on with it, and they’re working hard with us as engineers to develop the car. Having a driver who provides the right feedback – information we can trust and which we can link up with the data that we’re seeing – is huge. It’s helped us massively.
“Jenson has been a team player all the way through. He’s good for motivating the team, and he spends time with the guys. A lot of us will be very sorry to see him leave. Clearly he’s still on it: since arriving at McLaren, he’s come up against Lewis and Fernando, who are recognised as being among the greatest drivers ever, and he’s out-qualified them and outdone them in races. Not every time, but he’s certainly never played second fiddle to them.”
McLaren technical director until 2013
“Jenson is a world champion, and it doesn’t matter how good a car you’ve got, it’s never easy to win a world championship. Apart from anything else, there’s a bloke in the other car that you have to beat. Jenson should be respected and is respected as a great world champion. The season he drove in 2009 was really phenomenal. He’s a very stable individual, he can get the best out of the car every weekend, which is what it takes to put a championship together.
“Working with him at McLaren, he had some remarkable drives that really showed his talent. One that stands out for me is his win in Canada in 2011. I was fortunate to be able to go on the podium for that race win, and I still consider it the best win ever, because he was worse than last – at one point he was last but not even in the train of the safety car, he was half a lap behind and then Charlie [Whiting] got bored and let the safety car go! I call that worse than last. He still came through and won the race, so really phenomenal driving in very difficult conditions.
“There were many other races where Jenson showed his great skill. He’s very good at reading the wet, and you saw a number of times when he made the perfect call on switching to dry or wet tyres, great intuition on that, combined with fantastic car control to manage a slick tyre in wet conditions when it maybe wasn’t quite ready.
“He’s a very, very balanced driver, and very pleasant to work with. Of all the drivers I’ve worked with I’d say Jenson seems to enjoy his job the most of all, by which I mean the way he shows it."
Jenson’s race engineer
“I think everyone in the team is fully aware of what a talent Jenson is. He’s always done very well against whichever team-mate he’s been up against. Everyone in F1 seems pretty certain that Fernando is one of the top drivers, and that Lewis is one of the top drivers, and in both cases Jenson has more than held his own against them.
“An obvious strength he has is that he doesn’t make any mistakes. He needs a good car beneath him, but he’s very good at giving you the feedback you need in order to deliver and achieve it. It’s not just that he needs a good car and then it’s random whether he’s got that or not – if he doesn’t have it he’s very good at guiding the team, guiding the engineers, in order to get what he wants out of the car. There are times when he struggles and the car is not there, but it’s never luck that you then get back to where you should be.
“He’s also very good after a bad day or bad session at just resetting, saying, ‘We’ll start again, it’s a new day.’ As the engineer, if you have a bad Friday, he’ll give you very good feedback, you’ll go away, you fix the problems, you know that if the problem is fixed, you’ll start from a clean sheet of paper. If the car is capable of going quickly, then he’ll make it go quickly. So that’s definitely a strength.
“In races he’s got a very, very good understanding for the tyres, a feeling of where the grip is. I think the same thing that makes him able to manage the tyres well in the dry also makes him quick in changeable conditions, because he has a good feel for where the grip is in the tyre, and where the grip is on the circuit. He says you have to go looking for grip – it doesn’t mean you are driving all over the track looking for grip, it’s feeling where the grip is coming from the tyres, and making the most of it. The same skill allows you to be quick in damp conditions and allows you to look after the tyres well in dry conditions and to maintain consistency through a race stint.
“If he can’t tell where the rear of the car is, then he struggles to use his good feel for grip, so you need to give him a car where the rear is stable and gives him good support, and he can then use that to make the car go faster.
“Jenson is generally very relaxed when he’s out of the car, but when you hear him complaining about the car on the radio, he sounds stressed out! In part that’s because he’s very good at the switching on and off that most elite performers can do. You stay very calm up until the last minute, then you get 100 per cent switched on when you need to be, and then you switch off again. Jenson is very good at that.
“I think a lot of the public only hear him talking when he’s in the car, and generally if you’re a racing driver most of what you say is going to be complaining about problems with the car, because some of the job is letting the engineers know how the car should be quicker. I think you get quite a different impression of Jenson in that situation. He’s very different in a press conference compared to what he’s like in the car – it’s not because he likes hanging out with the media, it’s just that one scenario is him switched on, fully focussed, dealing with the problems, and the other is him relaxed.
“The positive is that even when he is complaining on the radio he’s very explicit and clear about what the problems are, and what you have to fix in order for him to become confident in the car and go quicker. It’s very rare that you’re left scratching your head about what you need to do.”
Trainer and physio
“I first had dealings with Jenson in 2000 and 2001 when he was at Benetton, and I was working at their human performance centre at Enstone. We’re a similar age, we have similar interests, and we got on well. I was there in the capacity of a sports scientist, and then I did a physio degree after that. I started working with him again at Honda in 2008. He was having some training issues as well as injury-related problems, so I had a good skill-set to be able to help him, and obviously I was a known quantity. It’s very difficult to find two people who are well suited and who can continue to work together for a long period of time. It’s not the easiest of working environments, because you spend so much time together!
“Over the course of those nine years while our relationship remains a professional one, simply because of that time, and the things you experience, you then become friends as well. Jenson is friendly, sincere and a highly-motivated professional. I think it’s difficult to pin it down to one or two things, but this is a team sport – it comes down to one person winning at the end of the day, but there are a whole load of people behind them. I think he has a real respect for that. When things go well, you win as a team, and when things don’t work out, you lose as a team. That can be quite difficult in the heat of the moment when you are out there doing 300km/h, and you have to be thinking, ‘If I say something silly here it might impact the people behind the car, the sponsors, and so on.
“But I think he has a real appreciation for the people behind the team. That comes through in his manner and his approach to racing, in and out of the car. McLaren is very marketing-driven, and there’s a real demand on the driver’s time outside of the car. Jenson has been at the team for seven years, and he has really strong relationships with the sponsors, and, again, that goes to demonstrate his professional approach to the job.
“Has he changed over time? Like everyone over that period, you do, just naturally. I think his core values are there and remain true. He’s probably just generally matured. I would imagine the trigger was winning the world championship, and joining McLaren. They coincided with each other, and there was a sea change, I think, in terms of overall approach.
“He’s hugely dedicated to training, and it will be interesting to see the amount he’ll be able to do next year when he’s no longer racing. He’s hugely self-motivated, and he’s goal-orientated, so he has to have something to focus on. He has a few goals related to triathlons, and that will encourage him in his training. Next year he’ll spend more time focussing on it, which shows that it’s more than just exercise for the sake of being fit for being in the car. Because he’s not going to be travelling around the world he can be consistent with his training, and hopefully he’ll soon reap the rewards for that. It’s difficult to be consistent when there are time zone differences and demands on your time, and you can’t really do what you want to do.
“I think he won’t commit to too much next year. He’s had many an offer to do other things but I think he wants to step away from having a regimented calendar. I think he’ll dip his toe into rallycross, see if he likes it, and if he does he may look to pursue that in years to come.
“Beyond that I don’t think he knows what he wants to do, and I think that’s quite refreshing!”
Head of partner activation, McLaren Marketing
“Jenson has been fantastic to work with. What you see with Jenson is what you get. There are no airs or graces, no put-on show. He is the genuine article. He’s always been on message with the partners, and he always delivers what we need from him. And our partners really love him as well. His personality is him.
“When he does events he always has that interest of what is it, why are we doing it, what is the gain for our partners? When he goes to any event the effort he puts in and the professionalism he puts in is exactly the same. He’s always engaged with the partners and the activities he’s doing. The humour that he brings out is important, and he always has a story, as he’s been in the game for 17 years. He makes everybody feel welcome, and he doesn’t make people feel that he’s the superstar that he is – he’s there and he’s part of the team, part of the group that’s in the Paddock Club. he’s always super-polite, super-professional, and super-funny.
“I remember when we did one of the first virals for Vodafone, which was Jenson and Lewis building a car in the factory. We tried to do something which we’d never done before, which was not give them a brief. Normally it’s, ‘This is the activity we’re doing, this is the brief,’ and all the key messaging. We spoke to them and said we want to do something completely different that’s never been done before, it might work, and it might not work. All we said was be at the factory on this day, at this time, and we’ll be doing a four-hour film shoot.
“And fair play to both of them, they came and they did it. They saw all the mechanics around them and there were all these car parts on the floor. All of a sudden, the mechanics turned around and said, ‘See you later.’ Then it dawned on them that they had to build the car, and they had no help at all apart from someone on the end of a telephone if they got really stuck. That was the first of three very successful virals that we did. We did the car, then we did camping in the middle of December, then we did one from a fashion shoot, where, again, they didn’t know what they were going to do. Once they’d done it the first time, they didn’t question it again, and it just shows the trust that they had in us, and also the fun that they had doing them.
“We’ve tried to do things with Jenson that he wants to do, like taking the F1 car to Bathurst, which has never been done before. He wanted to drive a V8 Supercar. Where we’ve always got the best out of drivers is when we’ve done something that’s a little bit fun, and they’re enjoying it themselves. He will always say he’s not an actor, but when you put him in front of a camera it’s like a little switch, and you can see Jenson the actor! No formal training at all – he’s just a class act.
“The good thing about having him in 2017 is we’ve got stability with the partners as well. They know Jenson, a familiar, personable face, is around, which is going to be a real bonus. He’s still very much part of the McLaren and Honda family.”