McLaren driver has had a lot of heartache this year but he will be on the grid at Albert Park in Melbourne on Sunday
Only one driver knows what will happen at Albert Park on Sunday when Formula One stages one of the most unpredictable races in its scattershot history. For Jenson Button, whatever the result of the Australian Grand Prix, it will be a deeply emotional experience because his father John, who doubled as cheerleader and confidant, adviser and sympathiser, died two months ago.
It has taken that long for Button to open up about his feelings. “Whether I liked it or not, my dad was always the last person to give me a high-five or a cuddle before I got into the car. Even if I was getting into the car and trying to concentrate he’d always be there to make sure he gave me that last hug.
“I’m going to miss that a lot. If I make the podium it will be unbelievably emotional and if it all turns to shit, and we have a crap race, it will also be emotional too because he’s not there to pick me up. “
Button added: “When I’d had a bad race he’d come in and put it into perspective. That would annoy me in some ways. I knew he was right but when your dad is trying to tell you something when you’re in a bad mood it’s always difficult. So it’s going to be a very emotional weekend, and not the only one this year.”
Button Sr, who was 70 when he died in January, was one of the most popular figures in the paddock. Although he shared the extremes of his son’s triumphs and despairs his default position, red wine in hand, was celebratory. At Albert Park there was much to celebrate, as his son won here three times, in 2009 – his championship year – 2010 and 2012.
Button said: “It’s been a pretty strange couple of months. I would say horrific but in certain ways it’s been nice, the messages of condolence and people’s thoughts about my father, things I never knew about him.
“So it’s been very special to see how many people that he touched. Somebody wrote me a nice message saying everyone else’s life will go back to normal but it won’t for you – but never feel guilty about having a laugh or a smile because it’s exactly what he’d want. It was a lovely message.
“It’s when you’re away from racing, or away from people, that’s when it hurts you. It hits you, like a stake through the heart.”
Happily for Button, he will not be away from people in Melbourne. “At the grand prix I won’t be alone. I’ll have all my family and friends around me, which is going to help a lot. It’s still going to be unbelievably difficult, whether we have a good race or a bad race but I’ll definitely have a lot of support.
“One of my sisters is coming – Samantha, the middle one – which is great, and her fiance; Jessica [Button’s fiancee] is there, and a few of my closest friends but even with all those people there it’s going to be tough.”
For two hours on Sunday afternoon John Button will not be at the forefront of his son’s mind. The McLaren driver will be concentrating on one of the most difficult challenges of his career; getting his head around a new and complex car, with the introduction of a 1.6-litre turbo engine and fuel limit the biggest difficulties.
He says it will be tougher than ever. “For all of us – for the mechanics because they’re a lot more difficult to work on, and things just take for ever because you’ve got the electronic motors, and the ERS units are big. Everything takes so much longer than normal.
“For the engineers, because there are so many different things to play with now. It is very complicated. There are so many different systems and different ways, even for the car slowing down under braking. Fuel saving … the engineers are flat out. So our job is obviously to understand everything that’s happening, but also to take a little bit of weight off their shoulders.”
Button’s team are “not in bad shape”. He added: “We’re not the quickest. We’re looking at Q3 and then a very good points finish at the end, if we can get to the end.
“The interesting thing is Mercedes are quick. They’re always quick after winter testing and they’ve done a very good job. Williams for me are the team that are looking the most competitive. That’s good for the sport, I think, having Williams back at the front.”
As for Red Bull, Button said: “They’re definitely not out of it but whether they will be there [challenging] at the first race or not I don’t know. It would be pretty special if they could get to the first race and finish it with both cars, or even with one car, after what they’ve had through testing. There will be a lot of teams sharing pain this year.”
Nothing, however, vaguely like what Jenson Button has been through in the past two months.