• John Button - 1943-2014

Memories of John Button

Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker
January 14, 2014

Maurice Hamilton

John Button was an almost ever-present throughout Jenson's career, with the highlight being the 2009 world championship success © Sutton Images
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John Button and I got off on the wrong foot. When his son burst into Formula 1, I questioned the wisdom of a 20-year-old racing a Williams when his experience - and results - in Formula 3 were extremely limited. My column in The Observer on January 16, 2000 stood out like a sore thumb alongside a specialist press gushing over a youngster apparently about to become Britain's next World Champion any time soon.

That piece might have been acceptable in the Button household had I not written a column two weeks later gently enquiring what exactly Marc Hynes, the 1999 F3 Champion, had done wrong after beating Jenson five wins to three. When describing F1's decision-making process, I used the expression "curious logic".

I don't recall those being the words favoured by John Button when we met for the first time a few weeks later in the paddock at Melbourne. He looked me up and down, paused briefly and said: "So, my boy's a bit of a tosser, is he?"

It was one of those fleeting moments when you think: "This is important - and it could go either way." Then came the grin that would become oh-so-familiar, a firm handshake - and a flood of lively insults. It was to be the start of wonderful relationship epitomised by regular chats in the paddock and in hotel bars.

Of course, John never let me forget my sage prognostication. When Jenson stuck the uncompetitive Williams on the second row with a sensational lap at Spa that year, I knew I was in for some stick, John cheerfully seeking me out among the Brit pack of journos crowding around his boy and reminding all and sundry of the wisdom of my ways. There was to be a repeat two months later after a brilliant performance by Jenson at Suzuka, another drivers' track. I could only put up my hands - into which Button senior, with that ever-present grin, would inevitably thrust a glass of something nice.

The relationship between father and racing driver son was copybook. John would never fuss nor interfere and yet Jenson always knew his Dad was there when needed. He was a pillar of integrity, enjoying our efforts to extract information we came to learn he would never impart. It made for an easy relationship with the British media, each side knowing where it stood and therefore free simply to enjoy the banter and the chat.

Two moments stand out among many. First Free Practice at Suzuka in 2009 and I found John Button sitting on his own in the temporary pavilion that formed the Brawn team's hospitality unit. He beckoned me to join him for a coffee. We didn't say much, the loudest sound being the blast of air conditioners and the background scream of F1 cars. With three races to go, it went unsaid that the second half of Jenson's season had unravelled and the title was by no means a formality even though, at that stage, he would become champion by scoring five more points than Brawn team-mate Rubens Barrichello.

"I'm treating this as another race even though I have to admit I've been thinking about nothing but the championship," said John. "But I don't pass that on. I just let Jense get on with it. I'm not showing any emotion and I don't think I will if, say, he wins this weekend. I think the full flood of emotion comes when you sit down and review what has been an incredible year. If they made a film about Brawn and 2009, you wouldn't believe it, would you?"

The time for emotion came two weeks later at Interlagos. I happened to be right there, at the end of the pit lane, waiting with BBC Radio 5 Live's Holly Samos to grab a few words with Jenson after he had stepped from the car. We saw the moment when father and son fell into each other's arms, realised the fulfilment of their life-long dream - and couldn't believe it. I've a lump in my throat thinking about it now.

Some time later, John and I met in the hurly-burly of that cramped paddock and embraced. Nothing needed to be said. Except for one thing.

Yep, he reminded me of January 2000 with another cheerful volley of abuse. I, along with a great many people in the F1 paddock, will miss that man terribly.

Kate Walker

Jenson Button celebrates his 20th birthday during his first F1 test with John © Sutton Images
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I wish I could remember the first time I met John Button, but it's not an occasion that stands out in my memory. The trouble is, he was always so friendly, so warm and welcoming, that every time he said hello it was like he was greeting an old friend - even the first time you were introduced.

Given what happened whenever I saw him in the years that followed that mysterious initial encounter, I have to assume that the first time I met John, we chatted motorsport, he told a few raucous stories, and then things disintegrated into laughter and gentle teasing before he moved on, the life and soul of the paddock.

In a world powered by Type-A personalities, John Button gave the impression of being rather more laid-back, laconic. Wandering into McLaren for a coffee, he was always holding court, regaling a small group with stories that led to peals of laughter. And it didn't matter who you were - a rival team member, a rookie journalist, or a paddock big cheese - if your veins were full of motor oil and you knew how to laugh, John would have time to chat.

However laid back and friendly he was, however, there is no denying that John Button was a serious competitor, a man who never took his eye off the ball. Because however relaxed he might have appeared, John was always paying attention.

One of my favourite memories of John comes from a night out in Korea, of all places. About half a dozen of us had gone out for dinner at the only real hotel within half an hour of the circuit, and as we were nearing the end of our meal, John walked into the dining room and wandered over to join us. A few more bottles of red wine were ordered, and we spent the next three hours laughing until we cried as he told us story after story about attempts to cheat the system - both successful and embarrassing - that he'd seen in his years in motorsport.

His stories spanned every category of racing you could think of, from his own days in rallycross to the years spent working on karting engines, and much more besides. But ever the gentleman, he was far too discreet to ever divulge names or identifying details. Grey-area components designed to break in post-race scrutineering, pathetic attempts to distract event stewards, fingers crossed that obvious tweaks wouldn't be spotted, all sorts.

That was John in a nutshell - he was frank, he was funny, and he was the life and soul of the party. But he was also loyal. Loyal to his friends, loyal to his rivals, and above all loyal to the sport he was so passionate about. He laughed at its excesses, revelled in its technological audacity, and he kept its secrets.

There's no doubt that the paddock will be a poorer place for the loss of his presence.

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