For 17 years as a Formula One driver, Jenson Button knew only one direction: forward, and fast. It was a life of private jets, five-star luxury and the trappings of being a world champion.
Not any more. In a candid interview on life after retirement, Button admits he was left questioning his “direction” after he stepped away from the grid, swapping his 200mph McLaren-Honda for afternoons playing cars with his son Hendrix, now two.
“It is great to see the kids grow and when my little boy runs towards me and wants to give me a hug or wants to play with his cars, it is amazing,” said Button, who lives in Bel Air, Los Angeles, with his American model wife Brittny Ward and their two children.
“But do I miss racing? Totally. I am playing with my son and my mind wonders: ‘What am I doing? Am I a stay-at-home dad? What is my direction in life?’ And when you have lived your whole life on the limit to suddenly doing the opposite, it is tricky and initially I felt I did not have the right balance.
“I am a racing driver, I always will be. It was difficult, and for six months I didn’t know where my career was going to take me.
“I was flying private jets and getting the best table at a restaurant, which is the smallest thing, but it is a completely different world as a Formula One driver, it is the pinnacle, and F1 drivers don’t realise how lucky and privileged they are. They are treated like royalty.”
Button now works as a pundit for Sky, is employed by Williams as a senior adviser, and wants to race in the American IMSA SportsCar Championship next year. He is also a team owner in the all-electric off-road series, Extreme E, and is reviving Radford – a British coachbuilder that has recently announced a partnership with Lotus.
“When you have the right balance you are a better parent,” he adds. “I needed to withdraw from the home environment to get my excitement. I come home and it is so good to see the kids and you play with them for hours.
“My life now has a direction and the future for the next five years is exciting. It is life-changing when you step away from Formula One but I am in a fantastic place right now. My life as a normal human has started.”
Button driving for Honda back in 2008
It is a warning that Lewis Hamilton may do well to heed. Hamilton, Button’s one-time team-mate, has spoken about his plans for life after racing and is unlikely to be short of offers once he hangs up his helmet.
For now, though, his focus is on the Styrian Grand Prix – and seeing off the challenge of young pretender George Russell. The 23-year-old drove superbly as Hamilton’s stand-in at last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix in Bahrain, and is in contention to join Mercedes next season as Valtteri Bottas’s stock continues to fall.
The seven-time world champion has more victories and pole positions than any driver in Formula One history but the emergence of Russell could provide Hamilton with a new test.
“It will be a big shift for Lewis to have a young kid come to his team who has already proven himself to be very, very quick in that car,” says Button at the launch of Readly’s ‘Step back in time’ retro campaign. “That is mentally tough. It is going to be a challenge and if Lewis comes out on top, it will be his biggest achievement.”
It is a grand claim from the 2009 world champion, but one granted gravitas here in Austria. After stating his preference for Bottas to stay at Mercedes in 2022, Hamilton, 36, was then asked for his thoughts on Russell.
“On doing what?” he snapped back abruptly. “On being your team-mate?” came the reply. Hamilton responded: “Well he is not my team-mate currently so I don’t need to say anything on that.”
“It’s funny,” continues Button. “George jumped into Lewis’ car in Bahrain and Lewis wished him luck. But Lewis didn’t comment at all on social media about how he went in the race because I think he was shocked at how quick he was.
“There is definitely something there and if they are team-mates it is going to be tricky for Lewis, which is what we all want to see. But it is probably not what Mercedes wants. It is much easier having a driver that is not as quick as Lewis in the team as long as he is bringing in the points. But at the moment, that’s the problem – Valtteri isn’t doing that.”
Button, though, is certain that the new Hamilton that has graced the paddock this year is up to the task. “Mentally, Lewis is in the best place he has ever been,” added Button, 41.
“This year, something has clicked. He is more down to earth, more open, he walks in the paddock and says ‘hello’ to people and he even says ‘hello’ to them by name. When he has a bad race, he is like ‘it happens, it is frustrating and we move on’.”