Jenson Button might very well be the busiest man in motorsport these days.
The father of two young children is a television analyst and special advisor to the Williams team in Formula 1, runs GT and Extreme E teams, is involved in whiskey and automotive ventures and, as recently-announced, will be racing in Nitro Rallycross this season.
Button’s rallycross program is one that’s been rumored for almost a decade and now retired from F1 but very clearly not retired from working life, Button is finally taking the plunge. But why now?
“I have actually thought about it for years,” he tells DirtFish. “My dad used to race in rallycross, so there’s history there, family history.”
That’s well-known – John Button was a British Rallycross star in his day, but what perhaps isn’t known is that the younger Button’s rallycross ambitions got as far as considering team ownership in the latter part of last decade until the monstrous costs of top-level competition in the discipline put him off.
“It’s like, no, this definitely isn’t what I wanna do,” Button says of his aborted plan to run a World Rallycross team. “I want rallycross to be fun and enjoyable, and not big manufacturers throwing big cash at it.
“It should be about the racing and about the personalities involved.”
So while the team plans were on hold, the rallycross driving plans weren’t. He drove a JRM Mini and classic Beetle at Lydden Hill in 2015 for a BBC F1 feature, and tested an Olsbergs MSE Civic Coupe at Sebring in 2017.
“Every time I’ve driven a rallycross car, I’ve just absolutely loved it. I’ve just had the biggest smile on my face. Whether I’m quick or not, I have no idea, but I love the experience and what you could do with the car and, and the feedback you gave you.”
The love has always been there then, but the opportunity hasn’t – not properly anyway. Then late last year a conversation happened that would bring Button into rallycross once and for all.
“I was at the Extreme E race at the end of last year and I got speaking to Oli [Bennett] about Nitro and he said, ‘did you know that there’s an EV car next year?’ And obviously he’s very EV at the moment, which is great. I said, ‘no, I didn’t know that’.
“He showed me a bit of the info, [and] I was like, ‘oh, wow, OK, this is proper exciting.’ Because to fight in Nitro against Subaru is very difficult. And there was no real point for me jumping in something that people had years of experience with.
“So I was like, OK, it’s a level kind of a level playing field. It would be great to race in it.”
The deal was duly signed, with Button linking up with Bennett and his XITE Energy team for Nitro Rallycross’ new headline Group E electric class, a single-make category featuring electric vehicles – it checks every box for the Button-Bennett partnership.
I'll be disappointed if I'm not competitive, I'll be surprisedJenson Button on his expectations of himself
While Button is yet to get his hands on the FC1-X he’ll be campaigning this year, Bennett has driven it but in a test of little relevance on snow in Sweden. The duo have therefore been testing a variety of other machinery together, including side-by-sides and Bennett’s Ford Fiesta and Mini Supercars in order to not only get Button acclimated to the world of professional rallycross, but to allow Bennett – a rising rallycross star in his own right – to learn a thing or two from Button.
“I still feel that there’s so much, so much for me to learn,” Button says. “Whether I’ll be up to speed in my first race or not, I don’t know, but I’m gonna do everything I can to learn as much as I can and try and be the sponge that I once was when I was the teenager of picking things up.
“There’s a very, very good atmosphere in the team and Oli’s never had a team-mate really, so he’s never had anyone to really bounce things off of or learn from, and he’s not actually been racing for that many years. So hopefully with me and the team with my Tarmac experience will help him with Tarmac and he can give me pointers on the dirt.
“But also the team do have the engineering and [the] mechanics have a lot of experience in the sport and, and other employees that they have employed… obviously because we a two car team now everything’s grown a little bit.”
The testing regime somewhat resembles Button’s post-F1 career, with him sampling a selection of different machines over the last five years. And while Super GT, GT3, Le Mans prototypes, off-road trucks, an AC Cobra and a Jaguar E-Type might not exactly be the sorts of cars that line up on rallycross grids, the need to adapt to each one in a short time is something Button feels will stand him in good stead this season.
“Rallycross was something for years I’ve wanted to have a go in. And I understand it’s chalk and cheese, it’s completely different to what my skillset is, but I just feel that if it’s got four wheels you can, with enough time and hours in the car, be competitive,” Button says. “The only problem with rallycross is you don’t really get that much time.
“I think the experience of driving different things over the last few years is definitely going to help me – jumping in different things and not just being an F1 driver,” he adds, revealing that he’ll still be spending more time in a UTV on dirt in the pre-season to get fully up to speed.
But what about expectations? Button’s made no secret that the fun factor is a key part of his reasoning behind a move into rallycross, but does that mean the results will be inconsequential? Not one bit.
“I’ll be disappointed if I’m not [competitive], I’ll be surprised,” he declares. “I’ll be surprised if I’m not. But then again, you never know. As I said, it’s so different to what I’m used to.
“I drove the trophy trucks and I never got to grips with it, because basically you just gotta go flat out and hope for the best. And for me that just scares me. It’s all about precision for me in my life and what I’ve driven.
“I do feel that rallycross is more like what I’ve driven than a trophy truck. It’s on dirt, but it’s all about precision still.
“I’m not gonna say that I’m gonna find it easy because going up against someone like Travis [Pastrana] in FC1-X, it’s gonna be tough, but it’s great having these two different worlds come together and, we’ll see. I’ll be learning a lot definitely from these guys.”
And with Button’s first season not even underway, there’s already talk of the second, and maybe more. He wants to be here, and he wants to be here for a long time.
“I don’t see that this is just a one year thing. I feel that this is a massive learning year and then probably year two will be a much stronger year.
“But you know, there’s no point going racing if you don’t think you can win, as long as you’ve all got equal equipment, which we will have – we’ll all be in the same cars.
“So there’s no excuse. I think the team will have a good understanding of the car, which is great. And if I’m not quick enough, I’m not quick enough, but it’s because I’m partway through my learning curve, but I definitely wanna be challenging at the front.”