Features - Interview
JANUARY 27, 2000
And then the telephone rang...: Jenson Button
BY JOE SAWARD
Jenson Button was expecting to have a fairly quiet winter after a busy season racing in the British Formula 3 Championship. As there was not much happening in the middle of December Jenson decided to go off on holiday in Mexico with his girlfriend. And then the telephone rang?
"It was Prost asking me whether I would like to test for them for a day in Barcelona," remembers Jenson. "Obviously I said yes and we packed up and flew back a week earlier than planned. It wasn't my first Formula 1 test because I had briefly driven a McLaren in November - as part of the prize for winning the McLaren Young Driver of the Year Award in 1998.
"The McLaren test was supposed to last for 20 laps at Silverstone but it was only 14 or 15 because we were running with wets and the track was drying out. There was not much point in carrying on because the tyres were gone."
The Prost test was also short - but it went well.
"It was excellent," says Button. "When you put your foot down for the first time in an F1 car it's pretty impressive - and a big leap up from Formula 3. But you get used to the power very quickly..."
And then it was back to Britain for the Christmas period. Jenson went down to his native Somerset and a few days before Christmas was out at the local pub, having a drink with some of his old mates.
"My mobile phone rang and this voice said it was Frank Williams calling," Jenson remembers. "I didn't believe it. To begin with I thought someone was having a joke with me. When I realize it was him I ran outside to get some peace and had a chat with him. He asked me how the Prost test had gone and whether I thought I was ready to race in Formula 1. He was just touching base. After that I started thinking about getting a drive in F1 this year but it was not until the after Christmas that we started talking properly about it and then Frank said that there was a possibility that I could test alongside Bruno Junqueira."
On January 12 Button flew to Spain, expecting to stay at Jerez for three days. He and Junqueira were there to be compared. But the test car was causing problems and neither driver was able to complete many laps.
Jenson says that he wasn't at all frustrated.
"When you are new and inexperienced in F1 you cannot wait to get into the car, so all the delays were not really frustrating. I just wanted to get on with it. In fact it was probably a good thing that we had so much time because as a result of that I got to know the Williams engineers and mechanics."
The two drivers were invited to continue the test the following week in Barcelona and so Jenson travelled up from Jerez to Barcelona with the test team.
"I was expecting to be in Spain for three days and I have been here ever since," he laughs. "I have had to buy new clothes as I have gone along. That's a good thing because I now have a whole new wardrobe - and the shopping is good in Spain!"
While Button was waiting, interest in him from rival F1 teams was growing and other offers started to arrive.
"I didn't get any other offers to race this year," he says, "but I got two offers to be a test driver. One of them was obviously from Prost. No, I actually had three offers to test..."
The shootout with Junqueira in Barcelona was also interrupted by mechanical trouble and it was not until the afternoon before the Williams announcement that both Button and Junqueira were given decent runs in the car.
The following morning, as the F1 media gathered in Spain, neither driver knew who was going to get the drive. Frank Williams kept everyone guessing. When he and Patrick Head really made up their mind to go with Button is a mystery but, according to Frank, it was only a few minutes before the team announced the deal on the morning of January 24.
It was only then that Button discovered that he was about to become the youngest British Formula 1 driver of all time.
"It was an incredible feeling when I found out," he says. "It was weird. I think more than anything else it was a feeling of relief after all the waiting and testing. But it is very difficult to explain. I was tingly all over. Then I came out and I saw my father and I said: "Dad., I'm a Formula 1 driver" and he was so happy that he started to cry. It was very emotional.
"I really didn't have much time to think about it after that," he remembers. " We had the launch and I spent most of the rest of the day with the press guys. It was a good day. In the end, when everything had calmed down a bit, we went out for a good dinner at a nice restaurant. I have to admit that I did have on glass of champagne to celebrate. I think I might do a bit more celebrating when I get back home after this test..."
But amid the euphoria and the hype there were serious questions being asked. Is Jenson fit enough for the drive? And will he be able to cope with the pressures?
"I may have only been racing cars for two years," Button says, " but I have been racing karts for 10. I think I've learned a lot in that time to be able to handle the pressure."
And the fitness?"I've got a month and a half," he says, "and I'm sure that's long enough."
If everything goes to plan Jenson will spend a lot of his time in a Williams-BMW, beginning with a week-long test at Kyalami in South Africa on February 8.
More than anything, however, Button is looking ahead to the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 12 when he will equal Eddie Cheever's record of 20 years and 53 days to become the fifth youngest Grand Prix driver of all time. It will make him the youngest British F1 driver ever, eclipsing the record set in 1952 by Peter Collins.
"It is pretty amazing to be the youngest British F1 driver of all time," he admits. "I do not know much about the old days in F1. I have watched a few videos with my Dad but I don't think you can compare different eras because it was so different in those days. It is nice to be the first of a new generation but I think that more and more young people are getting into the top level of sports at earlier ages: look at Sergio Garcia in golf or Michael Owen in soccer."
And was does Jenson think he can achieve this year?
"I really don't have any targets," he says. "I am just concentrating on the next few days. I am going home at the end of the week and then I am off to Kyalami. I am really just living from day to day at the moment and we will have to see what the first race brings. At this time of year you cannot tell what is going to happen because you do not know what the other teams are doing and it is difficult to make any judgement about the cars. We are pushing along with our own development programme. I really looking forward to find out what will happen in Melbourne.
"All I can say is that I don't think that I am too young for F1. I believe that what counts is being mature as a racing driver. This is all I have ever wanted to do - and I am loving every minute of it!"