Jenson Button’s car has been standing in central London traffic for five minutes. A parked lorry straddles a T-junction near Knightsbridge, on to which we need to turn. Cars are backing up on both streets – laboratory conditions for road rage. But the championship-winning Formula One driver peers over the wheel with a faint smile, radiating serenity. “This is an extremely bad day in London for traffic,” he says. “I hope you’re not in a rush.”
I never imagined the life of an F1 driver was all 220mph rips down the track and champagne showers, but a morning spent driving with Button into central London at legal speed limits certainly confirms this. McLaren has agreed to this drive partly as high-end product placement for the MP4-12C, the road car with which the company hopes to bring its racing technology to ordinary drivers (albeit wealthy ones – the vehicle’s price is £168,500 ($276,779)).
Our drive had started at McLaren’s Norman Foster-designed headquarters in Surrey, a metal-and-glass building that curves around a lagoon and could easily double as the lair of a James Bond villain. Button showed up punctually, arriving by private plane from Guernsey, where he lives – 38 minutes door to door, he tells me, before asking: “Is your backpack going to fit in the car?” I had been wondering just that as I studied the two-seater with its upward-opening gullwing doors.
Button is taller than I imagined, and very thin – six feet and 70kg, he tells me; a function of the triathlon in which he competes, and the Darwinian conditions of F1 racing itself.
In a sport where every millisecond of speed and gram of weight is measured, drivers must be fit but not too bulky, and have necks strong enough to withstand the G-force they pull. “Our bodies are quite freaky in a way,” he says.
Button has arrived wearing a cap emblazoned with a sponsor’s name, and the photographer asks whether he can remove it. “We do need the cap, I’m afraid,” one of Button’s handlers demurs. Later, Button points out that the sponsorship rules under which he operates are nowhere near as strict as those of Nascar in the US, where, he says, drivers must mention every one: “I had a great race with my Tag Heuer watch, in my Hugo Boss suit, drinking Johnnie Walker – it’s hilarious!”
Button starts the car, whose engine makes a deep, expensive-sounding roar. As experienced from the passenger seat, the MP4-12C is – like other supercars in its rarefied class – low to the ground and superbly nimble, if surprisingly austere in its interior design. The car we’re in is a colour McLaren describes as “volcano orange” – the colour of rust to my less-refined eye. Button tells me he has ordered a black one with black wheels, red brake calipers and red stitching. We are off, into the commuter traffic and lorries of the M25.
Our meeting takes place in the middle of a patchy season for the driver and his cohorts. Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team are looking invincible. A few days later, at the British Grand Prix, poor preparation by the “perfectionist” McLaren team saw the wheel on Button’s car fall off, and his teammate Lewis Hamilton forced to slow down because he had too little fuel. Earlier in the season, the two men’s cars collided while Hamilton was trying to overtake him on a wet track. Button says he could not see Hamilton because his mirrors were filthy. “To be fair to Lewis, he went for a move, and I’m guessing he thought I could see him,” Button says.
The collision knocked Hamilton out of the race, and Button dropped to last place, only to drive through the field and win the race in spectacular fashion. In addition to making gripping viewing, it set astir the old journalistic tropes about tensions between the two, which Button dismisses. “We spoke right after the race and cleared it all up, which is always the best way, man to man – not through the media.”
Last weekend, at Germany’s Nürburgring circuit, and not long after our drive, Button was forced out of the competition again by a problem with his car’s hydraulic system in a race that Hamilton won. The two do not see each other socially, but they have a good relationship, he says, even if each wants to win: “Lewis wants to beat me – I know that – and I want to beat him.”
Of McLaren’s star drivers, Button is seen as a cooler character than the more volatile Hamilton. Button, however, bluntly criticised the team’s car recently. I ask him about this. “Aerodynamically, I don’t think we’re quite strong enough compared to the Red Bull, so we don’t have enough downforce, basically,” he says. “We don’t have enough grip in the high-speed corners.”
Is Sebastian Vettel winning, I ask, because of his talent, or Red Bull’s car? “It’s the full package,” Button says. “He’s consistent, he’s very quick in qualifying – but he wouldn’t be doing that if he didn’t have a good car.”
As a boy in Somerset in the 1980s, Button watched Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna on television and dreamed of racing F1 cars. He first raced a go-kart around a pub car park when he was seven. His father, a mechanic, served as his manager, shepherding him around karting races. He only once heard his father voice doubts about him, he tells me, when they were returning from a race he had lost. “I just don’t think he’s got it,” Button overheard him say when he thought young Jenson was asleep, “I don’t think he’s got the talent.”
Button reminded his father of those words when he won the world title in 2009. “He was crying his eyes out, and I only said it as a joke, because it didn’t really hurt me.”
Last year Button moved to Guernsey, where he has a farmhouse. The island has a 35mph speed limit, but Button says that its cliffs and beaches are ideal places to train for triathlon. He also likes the privacy, away from the paparazzi of the mainland. I’m eager to stir up some topical dirt on this relentlessly nice man, and ask him whether he chose Guernsey for tax or privacy reasons. “Privacy,” he says, adding firmly: “I do pay tax.”
Two workmen in a white van have drawn up beside us and one is filming Button on his mobile phone. Button says, with no apparent trace of irony: “I think that’s probably the car, not me.” He says he is recognised most often in Japan, where his girlfriend, the model Jessica Michibata, lives. “But they’re very sweet – they giggle, wave and that’s it; they don’t bother you at all, it’s really nice.” When we pull up, one of the men from the van jumps out and taps eagerly on his window. “Jens, can I get your autograph, fella?” he asks. Button gamely signs the sheet of paper proffered by the man.
I ask Button how many more seasons he thinks he has in him. “I’m 31, so I’m still not old,” he says, pointing out that Michael Schumacher is still active at 42. But he wants to enjoys this time because he knows it won’t last forever. “Physically it’s tough, but mentally is the area where I think it takes its toll,” he says. “Also the stress of it – a lot of people say, ‘You’re just driving around in a race car, aren’t you, everyone’s dream’ – but you’re also working for 450 people, you have many different sponsors that are really pushing for you to achieve, and it is very stressful.”
Button’s driving in congested conditions has been – as one might expect – coolly competent, but hardly bracing. He even is a nice driver, letting one man in front of him who, as he passes, gives Button the thumbs-up. Is there a way of enjoying driving in this kind of traffic, I ask? “Good music,” Button jokes. But he declines to turn on the car’s stereo system because he does not know how to use it. “That could be embarrassing,” he says.
I ask Button whether he has another championship victory in him. “Definitely, 100 per cent,” he says, but notes that victory in F1 is a combination of driver, team and car. “It’s a team effort – you win as a team, and you lose as a team.”
We are now inching our way into central London, toward McLaren’s new dealership in One Hyde Park, touted as London’s most expensive new residential address. “Driven by a Formula One driver in London that doesn’t know where he’s going,” Button says. But he gets us there, I notice, without the benefit of satnav.
John Reed is the FT’s motor industry correspondent