The news is out – 2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button is trying his hand at rallycross, entering the Nitro Rallycross series alongside Oliver Bennett for Xite Energy Racing.
While the rough and tumble of rallycross is a far cry from the ultra-precise natrue of F1, Button’s move into the discipline has felt like a matter of when, not if, given his late father John’s rallycross career in the 1970s.
But what does it mean for Button’s career? What impact will this have on Nitro Rallycross, and what can we ultimately expect from Button?
Here are our writers’ snap verdicts to today’s big news:
It’s finally happened!
About time! The 2022 season will be my 10th season covering US rallycross (in its various guises), and ever since I first got involved there’s been talk of Button coming over to race.
He’s attended Global Rallycross races as a fan, tested Olsbergs MSE’s US-bred Honda Civic Coupe (and was apparently right on the pace, too), and more recently he’s been at DirtFish sharpening his off-road skills ahead of his aborted move into Extreme E as a driver.
Don’t expect a repeat of that here. For one, while it too is wild and unique, Nitro Rallycross bears a stronger resemblance to the circuit racing Button is used to, unlike the cross-country-esque Extreme E; and he comes with family pedigree, too.
Button’s late father, John Button, was a star of British rallycross in the 1970s, so you could say it’s in his genes. Even if he wasn’t a Formula 1 and Super GT champion beloved the world over, people would still have high hopes for him.
But I also want to touch on another element to this story, one that would be easy to overlook.
Each year Oliver Bennett, Button’s new rallycross team-mate, has competed, he’s improved massively. And he’s done that alone, campaigning firstly a Ford Fiesta, then a self-developed Mini Cooper in British, World, and Nitro RX. Now he’s got a team-mate for a full season for the first time, and one that brings bags of motorsport experience.
While a lot of people will be looking at what Button will do in his long-promised first season of rallycross, I’ll be keen to see what Bennett can do with the benefit of having a bona fide driving god on the other side of the garage to lean on.
Button can be fast, but don’t expect too much
Jenson Button doing rallycross has a lovely ring to it, right? It’s finally happening, his motorsport career is coming full circle, and while Jenson has never raced competitively in the discipline, rallycross is in his blood courtesy of his late father, 1976 British Rallycross Championship runner-up, John.
For Nitro, attracting someone of Button’s stature in world motorsport is a massive coup regardless of last year’s field. Nitro’s expanding geographically this year and Button will no doubt bring in a fresher audience keen to discover what rallycross and Nitro RX more specifically is all about.
As for how Button will do, naturally it’s impossible to say until a wheel is turned. What is clear is that the learning curve will be steep. Rallycross is about technique, feel and a fair share of guts. Button has those, but in a completely different environment so expect the opening rounds to be something of a baptism of fire.
Button struggled on his only outing in Extreme E, so perhaps his venture into rallycross should be treated with a little trepidation. That said, the emphasis on precision, finding the apex and duking it out on the edge of adhesion under braking is something Button is very used to coming from circuit racing.
Several circuit racers have made the transition from open wheel single seaters to rallycross over the years. Button will hope to emulate the likes of Timmy Hansen and Mattias Ekström, but that won’t happen on day one. Try too hard on debut and he risks looking like Jacques Villeneuve!
A massive endorsement for Nitro
Remember when the World Rallycross Championship was the next big thing, with manufacturers queuing up to participate? One big reason it was on the up in the mid-2010s was an influx of talent from other series. World Rally champions Sébastien Loeb and Petter Solberg rocking up in a discipline that didn’t even have a dedicated series promoter before 2013 was a massive boon for popularity.
Don’t underestimate the effect one driver can have on a sport’s popularity. Just look at Jimmie Johnson, the eight-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, who made the switch to IndyCar last year and it ended as the most-watched season of IndyCar in TV history.
OK, Button is not Johnson-level popular in the States. But he’s an F1 world champion – and a marketable one at that. For a series with US roots attempting to go global, the timing couldn’t be better.
Rallycross as a discipline is reaching a key moment in establishing whether it can reach the heights of the mid-2010s once more. There will be new electric cars in both Nitro and World this year and both will be visiting multiple continents this year.
It’s interesting that Button has picked the series rooted in being an entertainment product that leverages rallycross over the FIA-sanctioned championship series. It’s an endorsement of Nitro being more than some cool jumps and doing it for the ‘gram. Not that this was ever true, of course – the first two editions were won by rallycross’ most famous family, the Hansens, and they very nearly made it three in a row last year.
But as World RX braces for the beginning of a new era – year two with a new promoter and year one with a new technical formula – Nitro is first out of the blocks with a superstar driver in its ranks. That’s a huge win in its master plan to shift from being a US-centric series to a truly global product.
Bennett is the biggest winner
Dom has already mentioned it, but I want to reinforce it – Oliver Bennett is perhaps the biggest winner of all out of this deal.
Of course Jenson Button lining up on the grid is brilliant news for Nitro Rallycross and its growing profile given the gravitas and fans from other areas of motorsport he should bring with him, and for Button himself this is a great opportunity to finally tick off that lingering desire to emulate his father in rallycross.
But Button’s signature is a massive coup for Bennett in all regards. Traditionally running as a one-car entrant, Bennett has never managed to make too big an impact in international rallycross – but you can’t accuse him of that anymore! And he can only get quicker with the benefit of a team-mate’s data to learn from too – although I actually expect Bennett to be faster than Button, at least to begin with.
However it’s also a massive shot in the arm for Bennett’s business: Xite Energy. In a world where Red Bull and Monster Energy have been highly visible for well over a decade, the mass appeal Button will bring to Bennett’s brand will be just as important to him as what he brings to his race team.
Let’s just hope Button sticks at this longer than he did Extreme E. Another hyped up campaign that fizzles out just as quickly would be a sure-fire way to make a big win-win a disappointing lose-lose.