Button: it’s the challenge of fighting at the front

Jenson Button had the Formula One world on tenterhooks as he waltzed into the Thursday drivers press conference.

He was all smiles and laughter, apparently unburdened by the expectations most of the press had that he would be announcing his most significant career move to date: retirement from F1.

The moment arrived, moderator Jennie Gow giving him an open question with which he could riff as he saw fit.

“Jenson, you’ve been the centre of a lot of media speculation over the last week. Can you tell us what your plans are?”

The reply came: “Well,” he paused for effect, “I can’t give you anything else — since the last race there’s no more information to give you.

“You’re going to have to wait for a little while I’m sorry to say, but we’re in good talks, the team and myself. That’s it.”

Though Button is a favourite in the sport and though almost everyone involved in Formula One would love to see him stay, there was a sense of deflation in the room, which one sensed was gathered to see the moment the British world champion would bow out of the game.

The logic seemed simple. Button is 35 years old. He has contested 16 world championships, and has once reached the summit of the sport with Brawn in 2009, when he won his sole world title.

This season, meanwhile, has been far from memorable. The first year of McLaren-Honda’s reunion has gone down in flames, with the power unit in particular spectacularly failing to deliver, leaving Button and decorated teammate Fernando Alonso to scrap for positions at the very back of the field.

Considering Button fought tooth and nail with McLaren management to be retained for a year that as delivered so little for him, many assumed that the effort to convince the big wigs to take up his option for a second year simply wasn’t worth his time when his efforts could be better spent elsewhere.

“The joy of being in the car is only there if you’re fighting at the front, because you feel like you’re achieving something,” he said after retiring from the Singapore Grand Prix. “If you’re fighting near the back, you’re driving an F1 car, but you can easily get joy driving something else.

“The joy you get is competing. It’s about fighting at the front.”

With that the deal seemed sealed. Why go on when the joy isn’t there?

But at Suzuka the press bore witness to a different Jenson in the six-driver press conference that was, truthfully, all about him.

When prompted to explain why he found racing in Japan so special, the Briton enthused.

“It is the best circuit in the world,” he said. “It’s a very special circuit for most drivers.

“I was asked the other day, ‘Which is the best corner here?’. It’s difficult: you can’t pick just one corner; it’s just the circuit itself.

“It’s such a fantastic layout. From turn two, all the way up the esses, and through Dunlop it’s breathtaking.

“It’s a very special circuit to drive on and even better to win on.”

The 35-year-old could easily have traded places with the 17-year-old Max Verstappen behind him — awaked in him was the youthful exuberance rookie seeing the sport with fresh eyes.

His connection to the Suzuka circuit — and Japan — runs deeper than just a synergy springing from his exploits in a Formula One car, with his relationship with this part of the world spanning more than 20 years.

“I’ve been coming here since 1994 when I raced in karts at the kart circuit just across the road,” he recalled.

“I remember walking the circuit then just thinking, ‘Yeah, it was built for a Formula One car. This was the circuit for a Formula One car,’ and it is.

“It’s also very special because a lot of connections to Japan working with Honda for so many years. Obviously my wife is Japanese and, I’m a big fan of the culture as well.”

Even in Honda — the source of his and McLaren’s current woes — Button was able to find a happy place, and it was a short leap from his fond memories of Suzuka in his younger years to Honda’s inextricable connection with his early F1 successes.

“We’ve definitely had some ups and downs in the past,” he admitted. “2004 was a great year — I got my first podium that year.

“2006 was when the team actually became Honda and I won my first grand prix with Honda — still the only grand prix for Honda in this era, so a special day.

“But we never achieved what we set out to do, which was fight for the world championship. We had some good times, we have a lot of fun, but we never quite achieved that.

“I think this time is an important time for Honda. They will give everything, I think, to win the world championship.

“I know they’re working flat out — I don’t think anybody can put a time on how long it will take, but I know they’re giving everything to do that.”

It is a combination of passion and duty that motivates Button in this bleak era for himself, McLaren, and Honda — but with no reprieve in sight, least of all at Honda’s home circuit, which is likely to play to its power unit’s weaknesses, there is an essential third element in the mix.

“It’s the challenge of fighting at the front and the possibility of fighting at the front,” explained Button.

“I don’t like finishing fourteenth, I don’t like finishing tenth — that’s not what gives me joy, that’s not what excites me.

“But there are so many other things that, if they work in your favour or if you see a future, there’s the possibility of joy coming back, and that’s exciting, that’s a challenge.”

For this Briton, keen as he is on a triathlon, it is the challenge of returning McLaren-Honda to its winning ways that has energised him to fight of retirement for another day.

That fateful announcement may yet be around the corner, but McLaren, Honda, and the thousands of fans lining the circuit from open til close can rest assured that their man is ready and willing to fight the good fight for as long as he’s able.