Former resident knows the principality’s mean streets better than most as he targets a repeat of his 2009 triumph
Jenson Button walked out on Monaco a year ago but he talks about the place tenderly, as if it represents an old affaire de coeur. “Monaco is a great place,” he says, squinting into the sun in the jewel in Formula One’s crown, the epitome of life at its most lavish.
“There were many positives about living here. The sun is shining most of the year. The summer’s fun, the winter’s very quiet and it’s a very clean and safe place to be. It’s good for training as well. But I never really felt at home. I wanted a house and a garden and never had that.”
Button now bases himself in Guernsey but Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix will be an evocative experience for him. It was here, in his championship season of 2009, that his victory ended in an explosion of pure joy as he parked in the wrong place and then sprinted down the pit straight.
“I love this race, absolutely love it. And it’s such a special race that, if you win, you have to enjoy it,” he says.
There is something ridiculously relaxed about Button as he prepares to fling his car around the tight streets of this principality, sometimes grazing the walls that cruelly punish anyone who loses his concentration for a micro-second.
This may be the slowest grand prix, with an average speed of under 90mph, but it feels the fastest. And, steeped in history and tradition as it is, it will remain impervious to drag reduction system, Kers and the new highly degradable tyres that have been brought in to jazz up the sport.
Monaco, as ever, will be wonderfully compelling and dangerous. Button, though, just smiles at the very thought of it. It can seem as if he is not a racing driver at all, but an actor, playing a role with sedulous care.
They certainly seemed to think he was an actor in Istanbul’s Cagaloglu Hamami, the famous Turkish baths described by The Guardian as “the best bathhouse in the world” when he visited the place a few years ago. His name is displayed alongside those of Chevy Chase and Omar Sharif.
He may struggle to catch the Red Bulls, and even his McLaren team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, but there is an equilibrium about his mood which borders on serenity. Despite some ambivalent remarks about Ferrari he has said he would be happy to end his career at McLaren, where he presents a softer image to the more aggressive, edgy Hamilton.
“I’m very happy with where I am at the moment,” he says. “It comes from being confident in my ability, confident in the team that I work with. But it also comes with having the people around me that I do, beyond the team. Having my father around, my mum for a few of the races, having their support, but also having a physio that I spend most nights with. He’s a great friend of mine.
“So I feel that’s it’s about having good people around you. And Jessica [Jessica Michibata, his model girlfriend] has been fantastic. When she’s at races or not at races she’s so supportive.”
The only fly in this ointment is Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in particular. Vettel, the world champion, has started the season with such a swagger that he could have a second championship wrapped up in a few more races. The German’s attitude has reminded some of Button, whose title also gave him a surge of self-belief – he won two of his first four races for McLaren last season after winning the championship with Brawn.
“Seb’s in a slightly different situation because he’s in a very strong car again. But he has grown in confidence, which is a pity for all of us. He is becoming more of a complete driver. It’s great to race someone who is very competitive and has a good head on him. He’s an intelligent guy. So he will grow as a person. He’s only 23.”
Monaco, though, represents the great equaliser for Button. “Quick cars will still be quick and quick drivers will still be quick. But one small mistake here and you’re in the wall or you lose a massive amount of time. And times are so close here.
“The Monaco Grand Prix is a very different situation. There’s a lot of pressure on all of us. Mentally it’s so, so draining, driving around this place for 78 laps. It’s more tough mentally than physically. There, there will be a lot more cars in contention, the Ferraris, Red Bull, us, Mercedes, Renault … that’s 10 cars. Renault will be strong here.
“And there won’t be much overtaking. The best place is out of the tunnel, down the hill into the chicane. But it’s very unlikely. But we shouldn’t worry about that. Because it’s such a special, unique race.”
Saturday, though, is qualifying, where Button has been beaten by his team-mate 15 times in the past 19 races. So is Hamilton quicker than Button? The smile is gone. The eyes look harder. “No,” he says with the assertiveness that makes a very special driver.