Le Mans Classic pushes Jenson's button

At 38, Jenson Button is still more than young enough to race at the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time. But the fact he is choosing to make his debut at La Sarthe this summer in a Group C Jaguar at Le Mans Classic, rather than the contemporary race itself, tells you much about where his head is at right now.

The 2009 world champion stepped away from the pressure cooker of Formula 1 at the end of 2016, and although he made a return with McLaren at Monaco last year as a ‘super-sub’ for Indy 500-bound Fernando Alonso, it was very much a one-off. Button subsequently confirmed he is now officially a retired F1 champ.

Jenson Button

Image courtesy of lemansclassic.com

Since then, his racing focus has switched to the fantastic Super GT series for high-powered and spectacular endurance racers in Japan, a country for which he holds a deep affection and affinity. He made his series debut for Honda last August in the Suzuka 1000Kms and is about to embark on his first full season in an NSX GT for Team Kunimitsu, starting at Okayama this weekend (April 6/7).

Le Mans? He’s never shown much enthusiasm for the place when asked about it – which he was on occasion during his F1 sunset years at McLaren. In fact, you would have been forgiven for interpreting his coolness as a surprisingly dismissive attitude to the great race.

But should we be surprised he’s been enticed to come out to play at the fabulous Classic meeting on July 6-8? Actually, no.

For one thing, his mates have clearly talked him into it. Jenson will be driving for JD Classics, the Essex-based historics emporium for whom his friend Alex Buncombe regularly races. For another, Button is enough of a blue-blooded racing enthusiast to be curious about sampling the glorious 8.4-mile circuit, but without having to face the mass attention an entry in the 24 Hours proper would clearly inspire.

Then also consider that age once again: Button is a true child of the 1980s.

As a kid, he and his beloved old man (the late and much missed John Button) were avid Alain Prost fans. F1 was all they could think about back then. Still, Jenson couldn’t have missed the super-powered Silk Cut TWR Jaguars – especially when a sister chassis to the XJR-9 he’ll drive in July famously won the 24 Hours to national acclaim exactly 30 years ago. In 1988, Jenson was a racing-mad, impressionable eight-year-old.

Make no mistake: with more time on his hands now he’s done with F1, the chance to drive a Group C Jaguar will certainly be pushing his, er, buttons (sorry…). Whether he’ll ever be tempted to try the 24 Hours for real is another matter – and might well hinge on what he makes of the place in July.

But if he ever does to decide to make a commitment to the 24 Hours – and as an ex-F1 champion he’d surely be a welcome addition – it wouldn’t technically be his first entry into a big international twice-around-the-clock classic. Back in 1999, Button was a budding star in British Formula 3 when a sponsor diverted his F1 focus for a weekend to make a cameo appearance at… the Spa 24 Hours.

Back then, Belgium’s own version of Le Mans was still run for saloons rather than GTs as it is today and admittedly wasn’t exactly in the midst of its greatest era. But even if it was only run for underpowered ‘Superproduction’/Group N 2-litre hot-hatches and rep-mobiles, it was still a loud and clear bleep on the radar for sponsors and car manufacturers.

Fuel company FINA had a proud history at the Spa 24 Hours, and with a new campaign backing Renault’s Promatecme-run British F3 campaign for which Button was racing, made sure his contract included a three-line whip for the Spa enduro.

A pair of BMW 320is were entered under the FINA banner by Italian Gabriele Rafanelli, a true Italian racing gent best known for previously running BMWs in Europe under the respected Bigazzi banner. Rafanelli was now running his own FINA-backed team in Formula 3000, but was more than happy to return to more familiar territory for one weekend.

His F3000 aces were gregarious Belgian David Saelens (very quick and very funny, especially after a beer or three) and highly likeable Czech and future Aston Martin Le Mans regular Tomas Enge (who would sadly earn infamy in 2002 for losing his F3000 title after testing positive for marijuana). Button would join the pair at Spa to form a junior trio in one of the smart looking 320is.

Experience was clearly lacking for such a race, but this was a potent line-up. And when they qualified 12th, hopes must have been raised at FINA that their investment in young talent was about to pay off. Sadly, Button wouldn’t even get to turn a wheel in the race itself.

A fuel leak not only forced Saelens to retire the car early on, it almost gassed him. Fumes in the cockpit left him physically sick, leaving Enge and Button facing an early trip home. From what I remember, Jenson wasn’t exactly overcome with disappointment.

I happened to be at that race working on a story for a magazine and knew Jenson quite well having followed him to his British Formula Ford and Festival double in 1998. He was a pleasant, uncomplicated lad back then. Yes, hype already surrounded him, but Dad John was always there to keep him grounded. I experienced their natural father-son bond that weekend in a hospitality tent when John quietly rebuked his boy for an uncharacteristic moment of arrogance. Still only 19, Jenson clearly had some growing up to do – and John wasn’t about to let him forget it.

Earlier on, I’d caught up with Jenson sitting on a wall at the end of the pitlane before a practice session. He was on his own, looked a bit lost and seemed genuinely pleased to see a familiar face. During our brief chat he made it clear that while he loved Spa, driving what amounted to little more than a lightly tuned road car held little interest for him.

Funny to think that within a year, he would have concluded an unremarkable F3 season with Renault and FINA – then be handed a dream test for his old hero Alain Prost, who was grappling with the unhappy challenge of running his own F1 team as the century turned.

Prost’s car was uncompetitive, but Alain saw enough of Jenson to be deeply impressed. He made a recommendation to Frank Williams, who was running out of options in his search for a replacement for the disappointing Alex Zanardi – and the rest is history…

The cameo in a saloon at Spa was soon forgotten, and a torrent of time and racing has now passed since that weekend nearly 20 years ago.

Now with the perspective of an F1 life well lived, Button might be about to soften his attitude to 24-hour races. If anything can change his mind, it will surely be that Jaguar on the greatest circuit of them all.

Damien Smith, former Editor of Motor Sport Magazine