Out of 770 drivers to race in a Formula 1 Grand Prix, only 34 can call themselves champions. Jenson Button is one of them.
The British sportsman has chased the need for speed and competition his whole life. His gregarious nature and eye-catching personality earned him the reputation of a playboy early in his F1 career, and he was a stand-out character during his F1 era even before Netflix cameramen stalked the pit lane.
In truth, Button is a man who loves his family and a challenge, and he keeps himself busy in his post-F1 driver days, juggling everything from advising for his former team Williams to coachbuilding and designing race cars with Radford, getting behind the wheel as a Nitro Rallycross driver with Xcite Energy Racing and launching a new brand of blended whiskey.
Button is coming to Miami for the inaugural F1 Grand Prix this weekend, a spectacle that has totally transformed the grounds of the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. We caught up with the champ to hear more about his life in the fast lane.
This is my first time participating in an F1 event. Do you have any advice for me?
How are you going to get to the race? They're always tricky, like every sporting event, though because it's the first one, it’s going to be a nightmare. How many people can you normally have at the stadium? For F1 it'll be 120,000. So that's a lot of cars.
Well, I am going with a group of friends who are just so fired up about F1 because of the Drive to Survive Netflix show. What is your perspective on Drive to Survive mania?
I think it's great that we've got such a big audience here in the States now. That was always the market that was very difficult for F1 to break, because you have such good sport here, and it's always action packed. I think the show is great in that regard. I like that it's all behind the scenes, because you probably don't see that enough. You actually get to know the personalities of the drivers before they put their crash helmet on. There are a couple of things in it that I'm like, "uh, that's not how it works." It's definitely entertainment, but it's had the desired effect. It's got fans involved in the sport. I think we're all very thankful for that.
Do you think in hindsight not having all those cameras around during your race years was a good thing, or do you wish more people were able to see what was going on behind the scenes?
I'm so happy that I could walk around the pit and not have to worry about everything I said. Now, you walk down the pit lane—and the only reason they would ever have a microphone above my head is I'm with drivers—I look up and I'm like, "oh wow okay, there's a boom there." Nobody is safe in the paddock. You’ve got to be a little bit careful of what you say, but I love the era that I raced in F1. I must say, I think it was the best, but I think everyone says that.
I went through an exciting time. Back in 2000 to 2004, we raced with V10 engines, and the sound was amazing. Then we had the v8 era, and now the v6 series. I experienced a lot in my career; different types of Formula One, racing in lots of different exciting places around the world. It was amazing. I wouldn't change that for the world, but I'm happy to see that Formula 1 is doing great, especially here in the States.
How does it feel being back with the Williams team?
It puts a big smile on my face. I started my career in Formula 1 with Williams. I still remember that time I walked in Frank's office at the Barcelona circuit where we'd been testing, the moment he told me that I had to drive. I walked in. He said, "Jenson, we've decided that you're going to be racing alongside Ralf Schumacher." I was 19 at the time. I'm like, "oh my gosh," and he said "and in 30 minutes you're going to tell the world." I said "Oh, thanks for the warning." So yeah, nothing's changed.
I feel very passionately about the team. They gave me the opportunity. I had such a special year with them back then, and I almost got to race Williams again a few times over the years. One was 2005, and then late in my career I almost rode for Williams as well, but it just didn't work out.
They're in a great place. The results aren't there yet, and that's going to take a while, but they understand where they need to be, they understand what they need to do. It's just putting it into practice. It takes time, but they have the funding now. They have new ownership, which is great. It's nice to see that they are passionate and they care, and they've employed a few new people, which is added to the many skilled people within Williams. So yes, I'm excited for the team, and if I can play a tiny part in that, I'm proud to.
I'm sure you play more than a tiny part, but there are so many that have to come together. I don't know how y'all do it.
Yeah, it's crazy, isn't it? Every team employs some 500 people plus, and all of those people need to do a fantastic job.
I read that you discarded your 50cc bike when you were seven because it just was not fast enough for you. Where does this need for speed come from?
Well, my dad bought me a pee wee, a little 50cc bike, and I remember riding it a couple of times and it was all right, but it wasn't that quick. I said to him "Daddy, can it go quicker?" It had a restrictor on it because it was for kids, so he took the restrictor off. He said I was in the park near the house, and I just pulled the throttle back and fell straight off the back of the bike and pulled a wheelie. I loved it. I had a big smile on my face, jumped back and rode it for a few more days. Then, again, I was like "dad, I'm bored." What a spoiled kid. Then he bought me a go-kart, and I drove it, loved it, and again I was like, "What's next?"
He put me in a race and I won that race. I stood on top of the podium, looking down at the other kids, and their trophies were smaller than mine. I was like, "Yeah, I like this now." It was the competition just as much as the driving that got me hooked. I needed that competition, and that's why the racing started.
I can't even imagine hitting these speeds, these turns, being so thoughtful about so many things going on at once. Is that part of the addiction, just managing this chaos?
It is, but all of these drivers haven’t just jumped into an F1 car. They've raced karts and other formulas. You build up the skill and get used to the speed on the way through, but whatever you race before Formula 1, it doesn't—I mean, it helps you in certain ways, but otherwise it doesn't. You jump in, and it's so fast in a Formula 1 car, but it's more the cornering. When you corner a high speed corner, the amount of grip that you have and the speed you can carry is just phenomenal. When you get tired in the race, you can't hold your head up. The car wants to go that way and your head wants to go that way.
It's a big step to Formula 1, but it's such a buzz. It's so, so exciting. To be fair, these cars are built so well, they give you confidence to push it harder. It's not scary like, riding a motoGP bike for me would be the most scary thing; 250 horsepower on two wheels. A racing car just feels natural, whatever I drive. It feels easier in an F1 car to go quick. One second is really difficult, but to get to 1 second off the pace is relatively easy for a racing driver. It's the last bits that are tricky, and that's what you work out for years to find and hone your skills.
How does it feel to be back behind the wheel with Nitro Rallycross?
Awesome. I'm so excited. I've got friends and family that used to watch my dad race in rallycross and they're like, "this is awesome. This is so exciting," and other people are like, "What are you doing? This is nuts. It's so different to Formula 1." That's why I love it. It's so different.
I still haven't driven the car on one of the tracks we're racing. I am a little bit apprehensive, because there's some big jumps in Nitro Rallycross, and I'm racing against these extreme sports icons like Travis Pastrana and what have you. It's going to be nuts, but I'm really excited, and most of the races I'll be doing will be in the States, so my kids can come and watch. It's an electric series as well. They can come and it's not too loud for them. Which is perfect.
Electric racing vehicles are fascinating. It's meaningful even beyond the competition, to push this technology forward.
There's lots of different technologies being pushed at the moment. One is electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles. Formula One is going down the biofuel route. It's 10 percent biofuel, obviously we’re hoping for more in the future. Technology is getting better all the time, and we’re still working out which is the most efficient way, but I love that there's different ideas, and you eventually work out which one's best.
To be racing electric vehicles, in rallycross it works because the races are short, whereas in F1 you just couldn't. For an hour and a half race, the cars would have to be so big and so heavy to actually have the battery packs. That's why it works with rallycross. Formula One needs to take a different direction.
Speaking of different directions, you just launched a whiskey company. What inspired Coachbuilt, and how do you make sure it stands out from the crowd?
I've been into whiskey for the last 12 years. The racing team I raced with in F1 was sponsored by a whiskey company, so I used to do lots of tastings, and it was blended whiskey as well. I actually got to blend the whiskey for them, which was pretty exciting. That's why I got into it, and the last couple of years, I've been working with our coachbuilding company, Radford, to help build cars, develop them. Then I got a call from this whiskey connoisseur George Koutsakis. He said, "Would you be interested in working with me on a whiskey?" I don't want to just put my name to something, because that never works, and I want to be involved to make sure it's good.
It's a blended whiskey, and I can see the parallels with blending a whiskey and coachbuilding a car, bringing all these different elements together to build something very special. Most people go for single malts as the best, but it could be the best whiskeys in the world you're blending, and it's all about the master blender. We do something that's pretty special, and the price point is good. The bottle itself is designed like an old race car. It's been a lot of fun, and the product is fantastic, so I'm very proud of it. The important thing is that people like it.
I'm sure it's also fun to apply everything your racing mind has learned to something else.
It is, and the blending aspect is exciting, like coachbuilding a car, bringing all the different elements together. It's from the five different regions in Scotland. You blend it, and then it goes into the sherry casks for 65 months just to finish it off. It's been a bit of fun.
I would love to hear about the jewels in your car collection.
You're going to love this. It got to a point where I collected all these cars and they sat in my garage, and I'd look at them and think, "oh, they look beautiful, but what's the point?" What's the point of having them if you don't actually drive them? I thought, “if I don't drive in any of these cars in the next month, I'm going to sell them.” So I sold a lot of them.
I do have some special cars still that are unbelievably special—not just for me, but just because they are special. I've got a C-type Jaguar, which is from the 1950s. It was owned by [Juan Manuel] Fangio, one of the best drivers ever in the world in Formula 1. He owned this as his private car while he was driving for Ferrari, and they made him sell it. That's the jewel, I guess. I sold most of my cars because we've been renovating houses. My wife's dream really is architecture and interior / exterior architecture. Doing a lot of that at the moment, to add to the business of my schedule.
I liked what you said earlier, the way you pick something up, get bored and then you're like, “what's next?” You're doing so many things right now. Is multitasking the new need for speed?
Being 42, I've definitely slowed down from being seven years old. I'm just very lucky, I get to work with great people, great companies. I've been able to pick and choose, which is unbelievably lucky at this point in my life. Working with companies like Williams, who I've got so much respect for. I'm excited to see the progress in the next few years. That really doesn't mean a lot. It's the journey that I'm enjoying. The end goal is always great, but it's the journey of getting there. This is the fun part.
Follow Button on Instagram to see where his journey takes him, and learn more about Coachbuilt whiskey online. You can also see Button starring in the Netflix series Drive to Survive, streaming now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Courtesy of Williams Racing