McLaren Honda will insist that Jenson Button isn’t retiring from Formula 1, rather integrated into part of an innovative three-driver strategy for the next two years. That’s their words, not mine.
But after seventeen seasons in F1, the 2009 World Drivers’ Champion is stepping away from frontline racing, at least for a year, where he’ll take on an advisory role with McLaren. Jenson Button is going to stay with the team, helping to develop next year’s car in the hands of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne rather than make up the numbers for another season at a team whose stock isn’t rising as high as McLaren’s.
However, Jenson Button is not done with racing, nowhere near ready to just chill at home and enjoy some Soda Cookies. He’s shown in just the last two seasons, even mired with a car that’s nowhere near close to winning, that he can still be a productive driver at the highest levels. And that’s led to some speculation – where will the 36, soon to be 37-year-old former World Champion race next?
Everything from the World Endurance Championship, to IMSA’s DPi class, to IndyCar, to British Touring Cars, to Rallycross have been thrown out as suggestions.
But if Jenson Button wants to continue his racing career – and to emphasize, this is his choice as to whether or not to race in 2017 outside of Formula 1 – while maintaining his role as an ambassador for McLaren Honda, maybe the best fit isn’t in WEC, where Honda will have no involvement in the series next year, or in IMSA, where we don’t know if they’ll be involved at all.
The thing is, Jenson Button has always had a second home in Japan.
Button has driven nine seasons in Formula 1 with Honda power. Within these nine seasons, includes seven Japanese Grands Prix at the Suzuka Circuit, home and hallowed ground for Honda Racing, and its supporters. Button loves going to Japan, visiting Tokyo, and racing at Suzuka.
Five years ago, when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated the nation, Button did whatever he could to offer his support. He paid that back with a popular victory at the home grand prix in 2011 – his lone win at Suzuka, but one they’ll never forget.
In turn, the local fans, who in the absence of a Japanese driver will root for Button like a native son solely because he drives for Honda, give the love back tenfold every single year – and with this likely to be his last Japanese GP at Suzuka, he will be the overwhelming fan favourite.
Button is a franchise player for Honda on the world stage, surpassed only in popularity by Ayrton Senna, who clinched all three of his World Championships in Japan, at Suzuka, in a Honda-powered car.
Back in the Japanese national racing scene, Honda seem to be in the throes of a struggle. In the Super Formula championship, Toyota has their number more often than not, winning eight of the last ten championships. In Super GT’s top-tier GT500 class, Honda appear to be nowhere near the pace of Nissan or Lexus (Toyota) across all five of their teams, and only three of them are regularly competitive.
And the most recent interview in Car Watch with Honda’s Super GT project leader, Masahiko Matsumoto, shows how much they’d gotten it wrong in 2016 alone (translation offered via TenTenths).
Lacking engine power, or stability under braking, Honda removed the most troublesome element of their previous-spec NSX Concept-GT, the hybrid powertrain system, and somehow made the car worse than before. Honda spirals towards its first winless season since 1997 – and on the 20th anniversary of their GT500 debut, no less.
Honda needs a spark from somewhere, Button would love to continue racing while continuing his ambassadorial role.
Competing in Japan seems the perfect fit. Super GT seems the perfect fit from the surface.
Remember that Oliver Turvey landed his gig with the Drago Modulo Honda Racing team via his own long-time role as a McLaren test driver, a role he’s held for years. When Honda came on board, they along with McLaren gave Turvey the opportunity for a competitive full-time racing drive that he’d been starving for years to get, and was probably never going to get if they didn’t collaborate – unless he’d left the organization.
A chance to race in Super GT would give Button a fresh challenge, to reunite with old rivals like Heikki Kovalainen, to make new memories with the best that GT500 has to offer, the old veterans like Tsugio Matsuda and Yuji Tachikawa, and the young lions like Ryo Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy. To test his abilities against Honda’s current stalwarts, ranging from Indy 500 veterans to Super Formula champions.
A fresh challenge in fast cars, just a half-step slower than the best that LMP1 has to offer, and away from the extreme emphasis on tyre and fuel saving that, for better or worse, defines present-day F1 – and into a four-way tyre war and a three-way manufacturer fight for supremacy. The kind of racing Button wanted to see out of the 2017 F1 regulations. And with a significant change in aero regulations coming for GT500 as well, it gives Honda a chance to start fresh as well, with the design of their new-generation NSX racer.
Button could get that in Super GT, and if he were to choose to double-enroll in Super Formula, a true professional racing series that offers more of the brand of open-wheel racing Button was used to in his earliest years in Formula 1, he would still enjoy a light schedule for racing, and keep himself active just in case McLaren could convince him to come back to F1 for 2018.
In return, Button would become the biggest free agent signing Super GT has ever had. Super GT has been a stepping stone for the likes of future Le Mans winners like Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer, Loic Duval, and even Romain Dumas and Tom Kristensen. For future Grand Prix winners, like Ralf Schumacher.
And in the past, we’ve seen a former World Champion of motorcycle racing (Wayne Gardner) challenge the series after the fact, but Jenson Button would be the first former F1 World Drivers’ Champion to contest the series. And while F1 success is by no means the be-all, end-all in racing, just that heft alone of bringing in a former F1 champion adds further legitimacy to a series like Super GT.
And if this very informal Twitter poll was any indication, it seems an overwhelming majority (with a small sample size) would love to see Button come to race in Super GT:
But, in the end, the final say belongs to Button, and to people like Yusuke Hasegawa, who runs Honda’s F1 programme. Whose luckless predecessor, Yasuhisa Arai, helped arrange the Turvey deal in 2015.
The multi-talented Sam Collins just happened to be at Monza, fulfilling his duties as deputy editor for Racecar Engineering magazine, when Button announced his
retirement assimilation into the innovative triumverate of racing drivers. So did Hasegawa-san. The question was asked: “Will we see Jenson Button racing in Super GT in 2017?”
The answer? “It would be nice, but there are no plans as of yet.”
But Jenson Button also has the final say. From an interview with Sky Sports:
“There’s always that possibily. There are other formulas, [such as] Super GT, but I don’t know.”
Call it a hunch, call it misguided and overly optimistic speculation. But there’s this feeling that this nice suggestion could become something concrete for 2017.
The chance to start fresh, with new challenges, whether it’s for a one-off, or for the rest of a great racing career. At his other home, his spiritual racing home, where the fans can enjoy even more great memories of a great driver they’ve supported for the better part of seventeen seasons in Formula 1.
How awesome it would be.