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Saturday June 22, 2013

Up close and personal with Jenson Button

By EUGENE MAHALINGAM
eugenicz@thestar.com.my


Formula One driver/2009 champion gets ...

AT 33 years old, 2009 Formula One (F1) champion Jenson Button, who is still racing, is showing no signs of slowing down.

It is often said that age is an athlete's worst enemy, and with F1, it can be argued that the physical demands of the sport can be quite gruelling, to say the least.

F1 cars can produce a force as much as 4Gs through corners. In other words, a 70kg driver would weigh 280kg during a typical turn!

This puts a massive amount of strain on a driver's head and neck. To get an idea of what that might feel like, imagine driving around a corner with a few bricks swinging around your neck.

Also, the extreme heat found in an F1 cockpit, especially at the hotter circuits of the season, can cause the driver to lose up to 3kg of their bodyweight during the course of a single race.

Button, who was in the country during the Malaysian F1 Grand Prix (GP) earlier in the year, admits to being in the best shape of his life and shrugs off the physical demands his body has to endure during a typical race.

“I'm definitely fitter than ever. My fitness level over the last five years has really ramped up and it's something I've been working on and I enjoy training,” the McLaren-Mercedes F1 team driver tells StarBizWeek.

“Racing helps me both physically and mentally as well. No, I definitely don't feel anything like slowing down. I actually feel like I'm improving.”

Blazing a trail

Button, who is the fourth child in his family, was born on Jan 19, 1980, in Frome, Somerset. He was educated at Vallis First School, Selwood Middle School and Frome Community College.

Button and his three sisters were brought up by their mother in Frome, after their parents divorced when he was just seven. The young Briton began karting the following year and would find quick success.

He went on to perform impeccably in the 1991 British Cadet Karting Championship, winning all 34 races.

Button was also British Open Karting Champion on three occasions and later went on to become the youngest ever winner of the European Super A category. He also went on to win the Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup in 1997.

The following year, at the age of 18, Button made the transition from racing karts to cars, winning the British Formula Ford championship with nine wins for Haywood racing and also excelled in the esteemed Formula Ford Festival. He also raced Formula Fords in Europe and finished second in the European championship.

In 1998, Button received the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award for his outstanding driving skills.

At 19, he entered the British Formula Three (F3) championship with Promatecme and won three races, completing the year as the top rookie and third overall.

Button finished fifth in the F3 Masters at Zandvoort, but performed better at the Macau F3 GP chasing reigning Japanese F3 champion to the flag, finishing just 0.035 seconds behind the winner.

As the racing season came to a close, Button finally got his chance to experience an F1 racing car, as reward for his Autosport award that he earned the previous season. He would also test for the Prost GP team.

F1 career

Button's transition into F1 took place in 2000, which actually happened by pure chance when incumbent racer Alessandro Zanardi cut short his two-year contract with British F1 team, Williams, after an unsuccessful season.

At that time, the team's founder and principal, Frank Williams, was deciding whether to promote Button or Formula 3000 racer Bruno Junquiera into the team.

Button was eventually chosen following a test “shoot-out.”

Despite qualifying 21st for his first race following a series of car problems, Button still impressed with his driving skills. He would go on to score a point in his second race.

Despite showing promise, Button however lost his F1 seat with the Williams team and moved on to Benetton the following year.

The team at that time was in the process of being purchased by Renault.

For the 2001 season, Button partnered Giancarlo Fisichella, who was more experienced than the young Briton. By this time, Benetton had been purchased by Renault.

Button endured a lacklustre season, having been consistently outperformed by his team mate. Having finished the season in 17th place with just two points, he risked being replaced.

In 2002, Benetton, which was then rebranded as Renault F1, saw Jarno Trulli teaming up with Button.

Despite showing some improvements in his racing skills, it would be announced later in the season that he would make way in 2003 for test driver (and future F1 champion) Fernando Alonso.

In the middle of 2002, Button signed a two-year contract with a two-year option for team British American Racing (BAR), partnering 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve.

He would finish the season seventh with 14 points, one place and five points ahead of teammate Trulli.

In 2005, Japanese automotive giant Honda purchased the BAR team from British American Tobacco, renaming the team Honda Racing F1. Button partnered former Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello.

Button and Barrichello remained with the team until 2008, when the global financial crisis hit and Honda, which was badly hit by it, decided to pull out of F1.

Left without a team, the prospects of both drivers were uncertain for the 2009 season.

However, in March of 2009, it was announced that the former Honda team would race that year as Brawn GP, following a late buyout by Ross Brawn, the former team principal of Honda Racing.

Button and Barrichello were confirmed as the team's drivers for 2009, with Button reportedly taking a 50% pay cut as part of the deal.

Ironically, despite starting the year practically jobless, the 2009 season proved to be the most memorable one for Button, as Brawn GP went on to win the season, with the Briton claiming his first championship title.

After winning the season that year, Button penned his experience in a book entitled My Championship Year.

Looking back, Button admits that being an F1 driver is not easy.

“It's very tough indeed. It's the pinnacle of motorsports for all aspiring drivers and there is limited amount of F1 seats. Most drivers on the grid today would have got into karting at a young age and need determination, financial sacrifice and luck to make it all the way.

“I remember when I was a youngster in the back of a car travelling back from a difficult race in Scotland and my dad thought I was asleep. He was talking to a friend and questioned whether I had it in me to make it all the way. Years later when I won the World Championship, I told him what he had said and he was devastated! Maybe it gave me that extra motivation to make it to F1.”

Following the buyout of Brawn by Mercedes in 2009, Button announced in November that year that he would be leaving the team to move to McLaren for the 2010 season.

Based on reports, Button signed a three-year deal for a reported £6mil (RM30mil) per season to drive alongside former world champion Lewis Hamilton.

However, the prestigious world championship title has eluded him since and Button only managed to finish fifth in the 2012 season.

In March this year, Button announced that he intends to stay with the McLaren team until he retires.

After seven races, the McLaren-Mercedes F1 team is currently in sixth place with 37 points. Button is currently 10th with 25 points.

Button says he is still very motivated to continue racing in the “pinnacle of motorsports.”

“Throughout my career I've never lost that feeling of excitement and anticipation ahead of a new F1 season. This year's car is one of the best we've ever made I know the engineers have left absolutely no stone unturned getting as much performance as possible out of it.

“Having such a quick car in 2012 and hopefully in 2013 gives me a huge motivation that with better consistency we can get some amazing wins and push for championships.”

Interestingly the next F1 race will be the British GP on June 30, a venue in which the Briton has yet to win.

“The one race that I haven't won yet is the British GP. I've been a bit unlucky in the past at Silverstone (the British F1 circuit), so I hope my fortune changes this year. It's the one race where you feel like you are racing for your country, where the atmosphere is electric.”

When not behind the wheel

Like a lot of F1 drivers, Button resides in the principality of Monaco. According to reports, he also has properties in the UK and Bahrain. He is currently dating Argentine-Japanese model Jessica Michibata.

Button says he loves exercising and keeping himself fit even during the off season period.

“When not racing I love to train. This can be often done in a relaxed way with lots of fun outdoor activities. I was in Hawaii for part of the winter break and I managed to fit in running a marathon, getting on my bike, seeing my friends, chilling out and eating very well.

“Although home is Monaco, I love spending time in Japan. It's a great place with fantastic people to help recharge my batteries among the flyaway races and the sushi isn't bad either.”

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