Revealed: The go-karting guru who helped Button become F1's smooth operator
20:37 GMT, 24 May 2012
As Jenson Button bounds up to the middle deck of McLaren’s magnificent three-storey motorhome, on the ground floor two men are drinking a bottle of red wine.
Instantly recognisable is John Button, Jenson’s dad. His ruddy complexion and Riviera chic outfits are a permanent fixture at every grand prix. Less well known is the man in full McLaren regalia with the close cropped balding pate.
Dave Spence does not work for McLaren. But having been instrumental in the career of a driver they feel confident will deliver more world titles he is always a welcome visitor to their hospitality.
Button is widely regarded as the smoothest driver on the grand prix circuit, an advocate of the Alain Prost school of motor racing. But long before Button was earning comparisons with ‘Le Professeur’, it was go-kart guru Spence who was shaping that style.
Good start: Jenson Button was fastest
in second practice at Monaco on Thursday
Searching for someone to act as a buffer between a competitive father and son, Button senior approached Spence.
‘Everyone on the go-kart scene knew Dave was a very clever man,’ says John Button (below) of the early days of his son’s career at the Hoddesdon Kart Club in Hertfordshire.
‘We were struggling to have some direction in karting, and to get someone who really understood the sport well,’ recalls Jenson. ‘We needed someone who knew how to set up a kart but also someone who could help me improve as a driver and to help me with my race craft.
‘Dave came on board and looked after me. He controlled me as well, my aggression, and that of my father, in difficult circumstances. The way he did that was by getting really angry himself!
Support: Father John helped to hone Jenson's smooth driving style
‘There was an incident when somebody pushed me off the circuit, I was 11 and this guy was 16 and we were racing in the same category. Dave came to me and explained that I needed to stay relaxed and these sorts of things happen. But the more he talked about trying to stay relaxed the more he got angry before picking up a giant hammer and going running after the guy. Luckily he couldn’t catch him!’
With Spence’s help, not many could catch Button either, as his smooth driving style soon began to pay off. ‘I have always had that, since a very early age,’ says Button. ‘I used to watch Alain Prost on television and I had my father and Dave trying to help me be smooth in corners.
‘In the lower categories of karting, they are so underpowered you have to be as smooth as possible so you don’t lose speed through a corner. That is how you are quick. Because of those two I won 34 out of 34 races one year. I progressed through the other categories trying to keep the same style, just tweaking it here and there.
‘But the basic race craft and how you should look after the car or the kart like you look after yourself … you do remember those early days.’
It is the style Button will employ as he strives to win his second Monaco Grand Prix this weekend. Cool, calm and collected off the track and super smooth on it, Button is ideally suited to Monaco as a location in which to ply his trade and live his life.
It was not always so, however. His well-documented lifestyle in the playboy’s principality during his early Formula One career raised serious questions from team principals and team-mates alike regarding his dedication to the sport.
Winning the 2009 drivers’ world championship was an emphatic response to those who wondered whether Button would ever get his priorities right — although, in fairness, his performances in the run-up to his title-winning season had already shown him to be a serious racer.
But was there still a risk he might set tongues wagging by deciding to swap two years in the calm of Guernsey for a return to Monaco
Back home: Button has switched base to Monaco
‘I have experienced Monaco and I have experienced living somewhere else,’ says Button. ‘Moving away from Monaco is a good thing because you realise how good you have it in the south of France.
‘I really enjoyed Guernsey. It was nice to have a garden and a house with a garage. But I just couldn’t deal with the weather. If I wasn’t training as much as I am, I would be fine with it. Monaco is the perfect place to be right now.’
The ‘training’ involves the thousands of punishing kilometres to enable Button to compete in triathlons as often as his motor racing commitments allow.
Are triathlons the new ‘party’
‘Triathlons are massive for me at the moment,’ replies Button. ‘I need it for the car, because we need to be as light as possible. But I love training and competing.
‘If I win a race, I will still have a couple of drinks and party. But to have a party you have got to win races and that is our first objective.’
On track: Button regularly competes in triathlons
With just one win so far in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, it is safe to assume training has outweighed partying so far in 2012. But as Button points out, his driving style does come at a price.
‘When you drive smoothly you feel everything, which is a positive but also a negative,’ he says. ‘If you feel that the car isn’t quite right, it is a horrible feeling. You feel like the car is out of control. But when you are in a car that is perfect, you will light it up and drive it quicker than anyone else can.’
If mind, body and machine come together as Button knows they can, victory is well within his grasp around the unforgiving streets of Monaco this Sunday, even if he is driving in an era of competitiveness rarely seen in the history of Formula One. Button showed this potential yesterday as he was fastest in second practice in 1min 15.746sec.
‘There have been 62 world championships and 14 of them have been won by people who are still racing, that’s a massive percentage,’ says Button. ‘Formula One is in a great place. The racing is fantastic, the fan base is good and is improving all the time.
‘It is a nice time to be racing in Formula One, and racing for a team like McLaren that has such heritage and history is very special.’