My first piece of advice to you, and this may sound a little strange, is to make sure that once you get your hands on a copy of Life To The Limit, you take a second to look at the hardback book under the dust cover. It’s beautiful!
As I opened the cover and flicked through the first few pages of Jenson’s much awaited book, I came across the dedication. I always read these in books, and this one is particularly heartfelt and honest:
“For the old boy. Simply put I couldn’t have done any of it without you. Not just because you’re my dad, who I love dearly, but also because you were my best friend, my confidant and my inspiration then, now and for ever. Together every step of the way, we made our dream a reality. I love you and I miss you.”
“The journey is the reward”, as Jenson had included in the helmet design for his (nearly) last race in Abu Dhabi in 2016, and over the next 350 or so pages, he shares personal and insightful moments of that journey with us, made with his Dad, John Button, and shows us how and why it isn’t quite the same without him. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a tear myself reading about that journey too.
F1 was always the goal, and chapter by chapter, JB, or Jense (but most definitely not Jesper) takes us from how he first dipped his toe into the world of Motorsport, right up to present day. Following an interesting prologue taking us through a race day routine, the scene is set of his family upbringing with Mum, Dad and sisters in Frome, Somerset, and how Matchbox, Hot Wheels and Scalextric led to a seventh birthday gift of a Yamaha “Piwi 50” bike, and from there to junior karting. He talks us through his first time on a track, at Clay Pigeon, Dorchester (now home to a corner called “Buttons”) and how, despite it being a cold, wet day, he took to the tarmac with only slicks, as John’s way of keeping his son a little slower at first. We now know he was also teaching him the skills that have led to his reputation as being a master in rainy conditions!
Moving through his school years and karting categories to Formula Ford, Formula Three, and then to Formula One, the book flows easily, and in a very nice touch, contains some personal snippets that cannot fail to connect with the reader, especially if like me, you are a similar age to the author (I, too, had Reebok Pumps and listened to Prodigy, but I don’t think I ever chose to race as Bowser in Mario Kart as Jenson did. His reasoning why does make perfect sense though!). I sniggered as Jenson told the tale of failing his first driving test with the examiner labelling him “dangerous”, then passing at the second attempt, and later in the book when he revealed he had been stopped for speeding in France after the diesel BMW he had been lent was clocked at 143mph! It was costly at 4000 Francs for the fine, but apparently BMW were delighted with the advertising of their diesel cars performance!
The book also contains some fantastic photographs, some of which Jenson has started to share online in the last few weeks.
Jenson recounts the period where it all started to happen, winning the McLaren Autosport Young Driver Award that delivered him a test drive in Mika Häkkinen’s championship winning car of the previous year, and testing for Alain Prost in Barcelona, and posting a lap time half a second faster than Jean Alesi had on the previous day.
It should have come as no surprise to him then, perhaps, when his mobile phone rang whilst down the pub on Christmas Eve in 1999, and the voice on the phone introduced himself:
“Hello, is that Jenson?”
Posh voice. Alarm bells.
“Yeah,” I said. “Who’s that?”
“It’s Frank Williams.”
What do you say when a legend of motor racing calls you out of the blue? My advice is you don’t say what I did.
“Oh, come on, who is it really? Dad, is that you?”
Luckily, this phone call still led to the tests that saw Jenson emerge into the Formula 1 spotlight as a Williams driver for the 2000 season.
As you would expect, we are then walked through an F1 career that wasn’t always as straightforward as some might have thought from the outside. Jenson shares with us insights on his move to Benetton, being labelled a “lazy playboy” by Flavio Briatore, and he candidly opens up around the difficulties he had during that period, and how he learnt to master the feel of a car and tailoring it’s set-up with the team to suit his driving style. He then recounts his move to BAR alongside Jacques Villeneuve, a teammate he had to win over by proving his worth to be there, and doing his talking on the track.
2003 was also the year where Jenson had a huge qualification shunt at the chicane after the tunnel in Monaco, and he recalls the events as he came round after being knocked out cold. As a doctor tells him his brainwaves are all over the place, he replies “but they were like that before”!
He bagged his first race win in Hungary in 2006, and he describes that euphoria, but also the immediate barrage of sponsor events that he had to complete immediately after, when what he really wanted to do was celebrate! This is the kind of insight into a driver’s schedule that we don’t always get to hear about.
He also shares the roller-coaster of emotions that he felt as Honda announced that they were pulling out of the sport, and then as we know from history, Brawn GP emerged as the phoenix from the ashes at the start of the 2009 season with a Mercedes engine bolted in the car like a square peg in around hole. What is insightful is to hear him recount that first moment out on track in the car, and that feeling that it was fast, balanced, and as it turned out, six-tenths quicker than anybody else after his first lap! Reading through that season brings it all back… including Jenson singing “We Are The Champions” quite badly!
And then onwards to McLaren as the reigning world champion, a move that Jenson highlights many questioned. There’s been lots of excerpts from the book in the press this week, focussing on the relationship between Button and Hamilton. In the context of the book, Jenson describes how he faired against every team mate he was up against, and how their relationship was, so it seems no different to me that he mention Lewis and the differences between them.
On Monaco 2010: “…I remained ahead of Lewis in the points. Did he like being beaten by me? Probably not, but he’s a competitor and I am sure like me, he relished the challenge. That’s why we do what we do.”
Jenson clears up the incident in Turkey that year, which was initially perceived by Lewis as team orders being ignored to his detriment, but turned out to be bad team communication. He repeatedly states that they were “smiley and friendly” face to face, but there were incidents like the time he tweeted that Jenson had unfollowed him on Twitter, then subsequently apologised after finding out he’d never followed him in the first place. And the telemetry…these are all stated as they happened from Jenson’s point of view, and I don’t think it shows any evidence of anything other than teammate rivalry, and Lewis being fed up with McLaren as he was ready to move on. My thoughts? Read the whole book for yourself, not just a paragraph.
Continuing with the openness that he has shown to us throughout the book, we then arrive at January 2014, and Jenson talks us through the events surrounding the night his dad died. This must have been incredibly difficult for him to share. Away in LA on the way back from having spent Christmas and New Year in Hawaii, Jenson recalls the moment his physio Mikey Collier took the call from manager Richard, and passed the phone to him.
At the time that it was announced that John had passed away suddenly, I remember reading that it was from a suspected heart attack, but when reading this chapter, Jenson reveals that was not the case. John had in fact fallen and hit his head whilst returning home from an evening out, and that he will never be 100 per cent certain how that happened, but that it was all the more shocking as John hadn’t been unwell, or under the weather, or unusually preoccupied. Adding to this, whilst sorting out the funeral arrangements, Jenson was suffering from blood poisoning after cutting his foot whilst swimming in the sea in Hawaii, and come the day of the funeral, could hardly walk. He gritted his teeth and carried on, and remarks how much his dear Dad would have loved the fact that Prince Albert of Monaco was in the front row at his funeral, and thrilled to see so many people from Formula One attend it, fittingly held at Sainte Devote Church in Monaco, just by turn one.
In his own words, things weren’t the same without his Dad, and upon returning to McLaren, found his love of racing remained, but his love of Formula One was lacking. “My head wasn’t together. My heart wasn’t in it.” He touches on his “retirement” discussions with Ron Dennis, and why he felt it was the right time to take a back seat, and his farewell race in Abu Dhabi, surrounded by family and friends. Does he miss it? No. “You arrive with dreams, you leave with memories, and I’ve got a wealth of those.” Plus he did have a bonus race in Monaco this year whilst Fernando was on Indy duties.
Jenson is enjoying having a home life now, doing the things he has never been able to do before with his commitments. Decorating, cooking, Instagramming with his dogs @storm_and_rogue_pomskies, and getting time to live life. He may well race again, but just not Formula One without his Dad.
In conclusion, Life To The Limit is a great read, embroidered with personal insights and amusing anecdotes as well as motorsport detail, but poignantly reminding us that our heroes are very much human and feel the love and loss of a family member in just the same way that we do.
Hats off to Jenson for mentioning his fans in the thank-you section at the end, and I for one look forward to seeing where the journey takes you in the future.
(Also, Jenson, if you’d like me to polish your helmets and trophies that you mention in the book are in storage in Essex, I’m just round the corner, so drop the keys round, okay?)