Features - News Feature

MAY 9, 1998

Jenson Button


Nowadays Formula 1 team owners keep a very close eye on what is happening in the world of karting. Most of the current Grand Prix stars spent their teenage years racing karts on a professional basis and drivers in top-level karting have risen rapidly into Formula 1, the most notable being Jarno Trulli, who went from karts to F1 in the space of 18 months. Six months later he led his first Grand Prix.

Nowadays Formula 1 team owners keep a very close eye on what is happening in the world of karting. Most of the current Grand Prix stars spent their teenage years racing karts on a professional basis and drivers in top-level karting have risen rapidly into Formula 1, the most notable being Jarno Trulli, who went from karts to F1 in the space of 18 months. Six months later he led his first Grand Prix.

To achieve such a rise to fame needs not only great talent but also an old head on young shoulders and this year it looks like Britain is in the process of producing an ace like Trulli.

Jarno stayed in karting until he was 21 but Somerset's Jenson Button has set off on his road to F1 at the age of only 18. This year he is racing in the Slick 50 British Formula Ford Championship. There have been three races and he has won the last two. Already the Grand Prix team managers are paying attention.

For fans of karting the name Jenson Button is not new and his achievements in the course of the last nine years have been impressive, with a remarkable series of results culminating in victory in the European Formula Super A series last year - in his first season in karting's top category. It had never been done before and in doing it Jenson became the first British driver to win the title and the youngest Super A European Champion ever. He joined a distinguished list of past winners which includes Trulli, CART Champion Alex Zanardi, Formula 3000 frontrunner Marc Goossens and multiple touring car champion Yvan Muller. Giancarlo Fisichella never won the European Super A title but was twice in the top three.

The cynics will say that kart champions are two a penny but to while the World Championships are one-off races, to win the European title you have to compete in eight events, showing not just speed but consistency as well.

To Jenson it seems to have come naturally. His father was a rallycross driver - rather like Alexander Wurz's dad - in fact the Wurz Sr and Jenson's dad John Button were rivals in rallycross back in the late 1970s.

"My dad did the British and European Championships," explains Jenson, "and he did quite well because he wasn't in one of the works teams. He came second in Britain and was third in the European Championship. That was in 1978 and 1979 before I was born. When I was eight or nine he was offered a drive in a Metro 6R4 but he turned it down because he wanted to start me in karting."

Initially the karting was just for fun but it was not long before someone suggested that Jenson try competing.

"My father entered me for a race at the Clay Pigeon kart circuit in Dorset and I won. I was really quite lucky."

That led to the British Cadet category and in 1991 Jenson won every single race - there were 34 of them - in which he competed and was British Champion. The following year he was British Junior Champion and in 1991, 1992 and 1993 he won the British Open title.

"You don't get bored of winning," Jenson remembers, "coming second and third is boring but not winning."

In 1994 Jenson admits that he went a bit off the rails. He was leading the British Junior series but destroyed his chances with a series of crashes.

"I lost my head a bit," he remembers.

That year he raced in the World Championship event with the Birel factory team and in 1994 it was decided that he would race as a professional in the Italian national championship.

"A lot of the big names in karting are from Italy: the teams, the chassis and the engines and so I went there to get to know everyone."

Schooling was a bit of a problem for the 14-year-old jetsetter, who flew backwards and forwards to Italy for the races.

"I did a lot of evening classes to catch up with the work and when the other people had holidays I had to go to school but I coped. I am still doing evening classes now and I want to do some engineering studies because that will help me to go quicker."

Funnily enough, despite the travelling Jenson did not manage to learn much Italian.

"At school I did well in French but I couldn't speak a word of it, so I really don't know how I did that and in Italy I picked up a bit of the language. I could speak to the mechanics about the chassis but the biggest problem was that they all speak English so it made it very difficult to learn Italian."

Button astounded the karting fraternity by winning the Italian title first time out, scoring twice as many points as the runner-up. In the World Championship he led most of the way but his tyres went off and he finished second.

It was inevitable that for 1996 Button would get a top drive and he was signed by the Team GKS using works Tecno-Rotax karts and finished fifth in the European Formula A Championship and the team decided to put him into Formula Super A for 1997. The rest is history.

"It is the Formula 1 of karting," Jenson explains, "and it is very professional compared to Formula Ford for example. People pay the same kind of money to race in Formula Ford."

In addition to the European title Button also won the Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup at Suzuka.

"It is not automatically the winner of the race who wins the cup," he explains. "They pick the driver that reminds them most of Senna and I was lucky enough to win it."

What he does not say is that in the pre-final race he started 18th and finished in the wheel tracks of the winner nor that he was fighting for the lead in the final when the chain on his kart snapped. The President of the international karting federation Ernest Buser remarked that "Jenson reminds me of Senna".

The problem with winning the European Championship first time out is that there is little point in staying in Formula Super A and so Button decided to make the jump in car racing.

"I didn't miss karting until this year when I saw pictures and read the results of the last few races," he admits. "I have been in karting for nine years and I miss it. I would like to do some more races but obviously it is not easy with what I am doing now."

After the excitement of kart racing, Formula Ford must seem a little boring.

"It is a lot slower than we were in karts," he admits, but it is a good formula to start out in because you learn a lot of race craft and engineering. Single seaters and karts are different."

Even before racing in Formula Ford Button was given his first taste of Formula 3 with a test of a 1997 Dallara, run by Carling Motorsport.

"It went very well," Jenson explains, "Warren Hughes was testing at the same time with a Renault engine and a 1998 spec car and I did a time which was three tenths slower with an engine that was at the end of its mileage. I was very pleased. Actually I wasn't. At the time I was a bit disappointed because I don't like people going faster than me even if it was my first test in an F3 car. I was a bit down.

"Formula 3 seems to be a bit more interesting than Formula Ford although I haven't actually raced an F3 car. It was easier to drive because there was a lot more grip and downforce and that is why the times are a lot closer. In Formula Ford you have no wings and so you slide."

While two wins in three races is an impressive statistic in Formula Ford, particularly when all his major rivals in the series have at least a year of Formula Ford experience. But to most observers it is Button's attitude that has been most impressive. At Silverstone he had problems in qualifying.

"I was quite fast in testing and so when I went out to qualify the first few laps were a nightmare because I had about six people behind me trying to see what I was doing and every lap I had people slowing down so they could get behind me and that was slowing me down. I came in after 10 minutes and told the crew that there was no point in going out because I just could not get a good lap and that it was better to wait until the very end. I waited for the last four minutes and then went for it and I put the car on pole, a tenth of the lap record."

When you talk to Button it is hard to think that he is only 18. He is far too sensible for a kid his age."Trust me," he says, "I am not too serious. I am a normal 18 year old but racing is the serious side of my life. It is a long-term business."

Already Jenson is talking about Formula 3 next year but that will depend on sponsorship.

"F3 is very likely is we can find the money. I'm not sure which team it will be with but it will be a top team. I will have to do some testing over the winter but I am looking forward to that. I have a lot to learn. It is the most important thing but determination is a key aspect as well."

So obviously he thinks he can one day be a Formula 1 driver?

"I think I have the speed," he says, "but there is a lot more to it than that. There is the engineering aspect which I have to learn."

What makes him so quick?

"I am a very smooth driver," he says, "but I really don't want to be too big-headed about it. I have a lot to learn in the next few years."

Button admits to being a Senna fan.

"He was a very very good driver," he says, "a very clever driver but at the moment Schumacher is the top driver in F1. He is an amazing driver but there are young guys like Fisichella and Trulli. They are completely different. I think Trulli is much more of a thinking driver from what I have seen but Fisichella is very fast."

There are dangers in having too much success too young and having too much exposure early in a career, creating unrealistic expectations, but if Button can keep his head and maintain his form in a few years British fans could have a new hero to cheer for in F1...