This weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix will see a landmark reached by Jenson Button as he joins the 300 club – with only Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello as members as F1 drivers with over that number of race starts.
It was perfect timing therefore that Badger’s Sarah Merritt got the opportunity to sit down in Singapore with Jenson’s Physio and right-hand man for the past nine years, Mikey Collier, and chat about his role at McLaren, the typical race weekend routine, and his highlight of his time alongside Jenson.
Sarah Merritt: Thanks for your time today, Mikey – or should I say “Mikey Muscles”? Where did that name come from, did Jenson start that off?
Mikey Collier: Yes, that’s JB terminology – my wife doesn’t even use that one! I think it stems from when we first started working together. My background was rugby, and that’s a more explosive sport as opposed to Formula 1 being more endurance related. As a result, I was a lot bigger than I am now, and I’ve slimmed down – I’m not quite so “Mikey Muscles” anymore!
SM: I don’t know what your actual job title is, but how would you describe your role? I’m thinking trainer/physio/coach/dietician/friend/umbrella holder….
MC: All of those! A “jack of all trades”. From a team’s perspective, I’m a driver trainer/driver coach, so that coach element had a bit of an umbrella, and covers all the bits that you’ve touched upon in your description.
SM: And to summarise your career; Sports Science degree at Bath, where as a third-year placement, you worked with Benetton F1, which I guess is where you first encountered Jenson and Fernando?
MC: Yes, that’s right, a long time ago now!
SM: And then you spent 2 years on a Physiotherapy Rotation at Southampton University hospital?
MC: Yes, but before that, I also did a Physio degree. That was another three years, and I did that at Guys, Kings and St Thomas’s in London, before going to work down in Southampton.
SM: And that’s where you were in 2007 when Jenson contacted you, as his existing physio, Phil Young, was emigrating to Australia?
MC: Yes, that’s when first contact was made. I went to a couple of races – Spa was one, Monza the other – just to see if it was something that suited me, and equally as important, if it was something Jenson was happy with as well. I started in 2008, and the rest is history.
SM: Away from the circuit, Jenson follows a training and nutritional programme that you’ve developed specifically for him. Is he good? Does he stick to it?
MC: Yes, he is religious with it! And from a training side of things, it is something that he will go almost to another level with next year, simply because he will have more time.
It is always very difficult to be consistent with what we do because we are always moving around, time zone differences and so on. That’s his biggest barrier to having consistency, but exactly where he’ll be and what he’ll be doing is still to be confirmed. What we have done over our time together is look at putting a schedule in place. He’s worked with other people specifically for triathlons, so I certainly don’t take all the credit for that.
SM: I was going to mention that, as I read that it was you that first suggested triathlons to him?
MC: When I first started working with Jenson we were in Lanzarote, somewhere that caters for all sorts of sports and abilities, and at the end of the training camp there was always a triathlon race. We would train there with a good bunch of mates and that would be something that we always did, and it kind of rolled from there and started getting bigger and bigger. He then started doing event away from that, and just really got into it.
During 2008, it became a real “go-to” sport, mainly because the year wasn’t great, and it was a form of distraction and focus – something he could control and improve at. Then in 2009, obviously the World Championship year, it became a nice distraction away from the pressures of what came with it all as well.
It then got to the point where he was getting really good at them, so we looked to get some people who were experts in that area to work with him as well. Now when we travel to places like Australia, Japan, America, there are plenty of people that Jenson can tap into to train and coach with internationally.
SM: Maybe the competitive nature of it appealed to him to as well?
MC: There definitely is that, and there’s also a whole load of technology as it’s fairly data-driven – there’s power meters, heart rates, speeds, and all those kind of things, so there is a lot of crossover.
SM: Let’s talk about a typical race weekend routine; we’re here in Singapore, and I know at hot or humid races you have to think about the dangers of dehydration. We also always see Jenson on television wearing his ice pack vest (pictured right). I guess you plan the weekend around his race and PR commitments?
MC: Yes, absolutely – but this is not a typical race weekend here because of the time zone differences, and because of the fact it’s night and we stay on European time, therefore it’s not a particularly good example. We plan everything around the McLaren team schedule – I’ll actually receive Austin and Mexico’s in the next day or so – so we know roughly what is happening over race weekends and can the plan well in advance.
Race activities will take precedence, but then it is about making sure there’s time to have breakfast, fitting lunch in between the activities, asking questions like “When will we have dinner?”, “Is it too late or too early?”, “Where are we going to have it?” – all these types of things that from a nutritional point of view, you have to consider.
Also, I look at if there’s a need or a desire based on any other things that are coming up to have some element of training put into that. Here in Singapore, you end up with a lot of time, so we were in the gym last night at 12:30am, and we ran round the circuit a couple of times the day before at 11:30pm. We are always doing things. But it is worked around the schedule of the race weekend. For example, last night, I said “this is the time you should be going to bed, this is when you should be getting up”, but all I’m really doing is reiterating what I’ve sent three or four days before getting here and timeframes around it.
SM: When you are at the circuit with Jenson, the drivers always talk about their private room as being their sanctuary, where they go to have private time and preparation. You’re extremely privileged in that you are someone that is in that room with a driver at that time, and we’ve seen JB tweet pictures of you giving him a massage….
MC: I see it as a warm-up routine that involves some element of soft tissue work and other bits and pieces. It’s a room that very few people go into, just by its very nature, and it is different from race to race when you do flyaways as you don’t have the McLaren Brand Centre. Here, it’s a tiny, tiny room, so if you wanted to have more people in there, you couldn’t anyway! It is very secret, a sanctuary, as you call it, and it’s a room where he’ll get ready, and where he can go to if he just wants to disappear.
SM: Does Jenson have anything special that he does as part of his routine?
MC: More often than not there will be music playing. Here in Singapore, there is slightly less preparation time between the first practice sessions, about half an hour less, so there’s a quicker turn around. There will be music, and we go through a massage, then we have some stretching, then he’ll have an espresso, then he’ll get changed, and then he’ll get in the car.
SM: On a bad race weekend, I’m assuming part of your role as well is to support Jenson on days when things perhaps haven’t gone to plan on track. So you’ll support/commiserate/boost morale whilst you’re in that private space with him?
MC: Yes, absolutely. The weekend really does start from the Thursday, so you could have some people asking stupid questions and that could upset him, but in that instance he’s been around enough just to laugh those things off and, actually, Jenson is very good at turning that around and making the person who has asked the stupid question feel stupid!
Then obviously, Friday practice; if that’s not so good, that’s what practice is for, so sometimes you don’t actually want it to be brilliant from the very beginning as, really, where do you go from there? Then we’ll have qualifying, and if that doesn’t go quite so well, you’ve always got Sunday to put it right, and when it comes to Sundays, it is very rare that he has a bad race. Then it is job done, forget about it, move on to the next one.
SM: Moving on to recent events, we have all seen the announcement from the team regarding Jenson’s role from next year and he is reiterating that he is not retiring. You might not know all the details yet, but I’m assuming this means your role will change too, so I was interested to hear if you consider yourself part of “Team JB”, or if you thought you might now be working with Stoffel or Fernando too?
MC: I’m employed by McLaren, and not by Jenson, even though I work directly with him, so there are discussions taking place about what Jenson is doing, what I’ll be doing, what Stoffel is doing, and that will evolve over the course of the coming weeks.
It is still very new – Stoffel didn’t even know he would be racing next year until around ten days ago, and doesn’t even know where he will be living next year, let alone all the other things that go hand in hand with that! We have had some discussions about things moving forward and whatever the outcome, it will be because it is the right thing for everyone.
SM: We reach Jenson’s 300th race start in Malaysia, which is quite a landmark, and you’ve been with him for over half of that?
MC: It is my ninth year with him now, yes!
SM: When you look back over that, can you pick out your highlight race or moment over the time you have worked together? Would it be the World Championship win with Brawn in 2009, or is there a McLaren moment since that stands out to you for different reasons?
MC: It would be difficult not to pick the race in Brazil 2009. Qualifying wasn’t great and there was a lot of pressure building up towards the end of the championship. Rubens was on pole, and he was our teammate, and in Brazil at his home race.
I remember going onto the grid and being booed by all the fans, but that was just part of being there, and then Jenson just very nicely waving to them and them all cheering back. John (Button, Jenson’s Dad) was there, Richard (Goddard) his manager was there, and Chris and Richie, his two mates were there too.
It was a great race – he ended up coming through and finishing fifth, beating Rubens, and that triggered the championship win, so that’s a really difficult one to beat really. Maybe not the race per se, but everything else that surrounded it.
Obviously, Canada 2011 was a good one, and the Monaco win in ’09, and Japan ’11 as well, but when I look back over it as a whole that would be the one that I would say collectively was a really defining memory. I had one year of learning the ropes “under the radar” as it were, towards the back of the field, and then was thrust into the limelight of winning world championships. You have one year where it isn’t so good and then, boom, this is easy, isn’t it?
SM: Hey, we see just as many people waiting for selfies with you at the track as we do Jenson! (Mikey laughs)
It was great to be given the opportunity to sit down with Mikey and talk through what his role entails, not just, as Jenson joked recently with Martin Brundle on his Sky Sports F1 grid walk, holding the umbrella! For the most recent nine years of his F1 career, Mikey has been alongside Jenson on the journey, whatever highs and lows have come along, and to hear him enthuse about the 2009 season finale in Brazil brought back memories of watching those events unfurl on television like it was yesterday…and yes, even the singing of “We Are The Champions”!
Congratulations to Jenson on his 300th race start and here’s hoping it’s a good one!