Jenson Button’s rise to Formula 1
Current Formula 1 newcomers spend years and years racing in single-seaters before they are deemed experienced enough to jump into an F1 car. There are so many feeder series to choose from and plenty of routes to take to the pinnacle of motorsport.
However 15 years ago it was so much simpler. The road to F1 was clear cut, simple and effective. Believe it or not, 2009 world champion Jenson Button spent just two seasons racing single-seaters before making his F1 debut.
The Brit also only competed in 19 races with a “slicks and wing” car- his first single-seater experience was in the wingless Formula Ford car. If he was attempting to join the F1 grid right now he wouldn’t stand a chance. So how did Button’s racing career start? It was a simpler time…
At the tender age of eight years old, Jenson Button was presented with his first go-kart. It was a Christmas present and one kick started the interest of a future champion. He first drove the kart on a disused airfield and caught the karting bug, but he soon tired of the scenery and was entered in his first race at the Clay Pigeon track in Dorset.
He won it, naturally, with his raw speed and talent shining through from the very beginning. At the time he thought it was just a bit of luck but after some persuasion, his father John Button started entering him in races and the success was phenomenal.
In 1991 the Cadet Class was the place to be with a highly competitive field that Button beat race after race. He eventually won all 34 rounds that he competed in to take the British Cadet Championship before winning the British Open title in the same year. He won the series in 1992 and 1993 as well before showing strong form in the British Junior and World Championship series.
Karting was just as fierce when Button was racing as it is now and has remained relatively similar in structure. “You don’t get bored with winning,” Jenson was once quoted saying. “Coming second or third is boring, but not winning.” However despite the huge early success, the Brit also suffered a few uncharacteristic errors which saw him “lose his head” and miss out on critical results.
Like all commited karters, racing in Britain just wasn’t enough and he jumped over to Italy to race in the national championship as a professional. Despite attempting to juggle his academic studies with a career in karts, he shocked the karting fraternity by winning the Italian championship on his first attempt and finished second in the World Championship.
After a career showered in success it was inevitable that he would move up to the European Formula A Championship in 1996 with a front-running drive and a fifth place to add to his CV. Team GKS – whom he raced for in the series – promoted him to the Formula Super A for 1997 and he won it on his first attempt, becoming the youngest person to do so.
In addition to his triumphs in Europe, he also won the Ayrton Senna Memorial Cup at Suzuka where it wasn’t the winner who won but the driver who ‘most reminds them of Senna’.
After winning the ‘Formula 1 of karting’ there wasn’t anywhere else to go for Button than single-seaters. After dominating almost every karting series he entered in, there was huge pressure to perform as he made his British Formula Ford debut in 1998.
He had spent nine years racing in karts and whilst some may have raced that long without making any impact at all, Button really did and was tipped for future success.
Before that came a test with Carlin Motorsport in a Formula 3 car and he was happy with his performance overall – as were those watching on. The Brit had been debating with his managers whether a move from karting straight to Formula 3 would be the best route. However in the end a more conservative path was cleared with Formula Ford being the best place for Button to learn his race craft and engineering.
Some had doubted his talent prior to his debut in the series but he impressed on his debut with a confident third place finish. He steadily improved as the season went on and won the championship with seven wins and 133 points. He also won the coveted Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch which catapulted him into being shortlisted for the BRDC McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year award.
In his year the selected drivers had to drive a Lotus Elise from the Silverstone Racing School, an F3 Dallara-Mugen and a Nissan Primera touring car alongside interviews to test their social and communications skills.
Jenson won the award with the prizes including a £50,000 cheque that helped hugely to get him into F3 for the following year, a test in a McLaren Mercedes F1 car and a bucket load of free publicity, Button had defied his critics and caught the attention of the F1 world.
His drive in the McLaren didn’t come until November 1999. By that time he had a full year of F3 under his belt and was in preparation for a test with the Prost F1 Team. Prior to that, he took the route of progressing to the British Formula 3 – a championship that had propelled former winners to F1.
However Button didn’t necessarily have to win the title in order to catch the eyes of F1 teams. Yes, he had to do well but what made him an even more enticing prospect was his backing from his then-manager David Robertson and numerous businesses and sponsors, all of whom had their eyes set on him progressing up the ladder as quickly as possible.
He declined offers from two teams to drive the Macau Grand Prix prior to his Formula 3 debut and signed for Promatecme. Boss Serge Saulnier was impressed by Keith Sutton – from Sutton Images – sales pitch, he helped Button through his early career much like he did with publicising Ayrton Senna, and offered Button a test at Magny-Cours.
He was immediately impressed and offered Button a drive for 1999. In just his second season in single seaters, Button qualified for the first race at Donnington Park on pole and finished the first race in second. He came sixth at the next round at the Silverstone circuit but won his first race at Thruxton shortly after.
A tough next two rounds at the Brands Hatch ‘double header’ saw the 19-year-old finish eighth and seventh, hampered by his Renault engine which had comparatively less power. Fifth at Oulton Park was disappointing and his title challenge took another turn when he registered his first and only retirement of the season at Croft after his throttle stuck open.
Sixth, second and 11th at the next rounds put him further out of title contention but he rounded out the season with two wins, one at Pembrey and one at Silverstone, alongside two second places, a fourth and an unfortunate retirement in the final round of the season after a tangle.
He rounded out his season with a second place at the prestigious Macau Grand Prix and finishing runner-up at the Korea Super Prix.
His debut Formula 3 season saw him finish third in the championship, best of the rest with a less powerful engine and catching plenty of attention from high profile F1 personnel.
After just 35 races in single-seaters, Button successfully completed his test with McLaren. A test in the Prost F1 car and a shoot-out for the second 2000 Williams seat gave him plenty of F1 experience and the rest, they say, is history…
Jack Leslie is a freelance motorsport journalist. He has been part of the Richland F1 team since the very start and made his debut in the F1 paddock for the website at the 2014 Austrian Grand Prix. Jack also writes for Car Throttle and RumbleStripNews, as well as running a popular blog.