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'I was 20 years old... I thought my talent was all I needed to get by'

Jenson Button on his early days partying in Formula One.

Williams driver Jenson Button prepares for practice in March 2000.
Williams driver Jenson Button prepares for practice in March 2000.
Image: EMPICS Sport

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘How to be an F1 Driver’ by Jenson Button.

Older Formula One drivers have it all their own way. They can do shit and get away with it. Like if they’re pictured drinking with their mates in St-Tropez, it’s fine. It’s them letting off steam. Go them!

It’s the youngsters who don’t have it so easy. The ones coming into the game. For them it’s all, ‘Oh, look at that playboy, who does he think he is? It’s all gone to his head.’ Basically, if you want to avoid the wagging fingers and the pointing tongues then you’ve got to be really careful as a youngster coming through the ranks. Guess who wasn’t careful?

And yes, people ask if it went to my head. Actually they just straight out tell me, ‘it went to your head, JB’, as though they can presume to know what was going on inside my brains. But the people who say that can take a long walk off a short pier, because I don’t think it did go to my head. Not really. What they interpreted as arrogance was in fact the euphoria of someone who was simply happy to be living his dream. How happy? Like a dog with two tails.

I know now that I didn’t focus as much as I should have done.I didn’t study and learn the engineering side of things. I didn’t knuckle down and think, This is just the start, but now I need to be clever and I need to work hard. Like I say, I know that now, with the benefit of these hindsight goggles I’m currently wearing.

But at the time? Come on. I was a Formula One driver, I was racing for Williams. I was 20 years old, which at the time made me the youngest-ever F1 driver, and I thought my talent was all I needed to get by. So what was I going to do? I was going to go out.

So I did. And for a while, I stayed out. I mean, look, I come from Somerset where the local nightclubs were proper stickyfloor pick-up joints. Now suddenly I’m racing in Formula One and London has opened its doors and ushered me inside. I’m no longer at Oscars at Longleat or McGuinness’s in Frome. I’m at China White in the West End, Mahiki in Mayfair, the Atlantic and the Titanic. I hadn’t made new friends when I started in Formula One; I was still hanging out with my old mates from home, and together we were on the same fun, exciting journey, running around London trying to outwit the paparazzi because we needed to keep it all secret from my dad, who would have had a fit if he’d known I was living it up so much.

Having said all that, it wasn’t nearly as debauched as your dirty mind is imagining, and while I might not have been quite as committed as I should have been, I was still a sportsman and very much aware of my responsibilities. Sure, I was out a lot, but I didn’t let it get in the way of races. In terms of cutting things fine, probably the naughtiest thing I did was that I once partied on a Wednesday before a British Grand Prix. Oh yes, and I attended a Scream premier once, went on to the after-party and woke up a bit hung over.

That was really the closest I ever got to drinking before a Grand Prix weekend. After the races. Ah, now that’s a different story. That was when the drinking would happen. Rapunzel had nothing on us when it came to letting our hair down. I remember after a Silverstone I partied for five days non-stop, out every night, and one of those nights consisted of me leaving the property where I was staying, wearing only Ugg boots and running around the block, which was much bigger than expected. The block was much bigger than expected, I should clarify.

Of course, the golden rule is that it’s okay to do all this sort of stuff when things are on the up, but it’s not a good look when results aren’t going your way. Suddenly it’s, ‘Uh oh, so that’s why he’s no longer competitive. It’s because he’s out on the town every night’. That was what happened to me during my time at Benetton in 2001. True, the car wasn’t up to much, but that’s not really the barometer of your success as a driver.

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For that you need to look at how you perform against your teammate, who’s driving exactly the same car as you, and I was getting soundly beaten by mine, Giancarlo Fisichella. I was in a slump. I was getting flak, not only from the press but also from my own boss, Flavio Briatore, who had called me ‘a lazy playboy’ (not true – I was a highly committed and industrious playboy). Anyway.

Like I say, the team had a word, put me straight. And during the off-season I switched up, got my shit together and focused on the engineering side of things. And after that the results started to come. Funny that.

My change of approach didn’t stop me partying completely, of course. It just gave my work–social life the same thing I look for in my cars: balance. I’d still be up for it on Sunday night, post-race when we’d be like, ‘Where’s the party?’ Me, Daniel Ricciardo, David Coulthard, anyone else we could rope in.

You do a bit of party-hopping, of course. This one’s good, but let’s try this one. Oh, it’s not quite as good, let’s go back to the first one, oh no, we should have stayed at this one all along, but we’d normally find out where the best parties were, and we’d do our best to play catch-up with the rest of our teams, many of whom would have been partying every night of the weekend – especially at Monaco, which is just huge for the teams, the fans, the visiting VIPs – everybody’s on it all weekend, apart from the drivers. (Was I jealous, after my night on the Evian, seeing them all with their hangovers? Not a bit of it, mate. They’d all be going, ‘Oh, we had a great night last night, so much fun,’ and I’d be thinking, Awesome, but I get to drive an F1 car today and that’s pretty damn cool as well.)

Besides, Sunday after Monaco was – probably still is – a blast. If you go to Amber Lounge it’s, like, €600 a ticket just to get in and then you’ve got to pay for your drinks and for a table. You’re talking €6,000 and the night’s hardly even started. If you’re a punter. It’s different for drivers, of course. Everybody wants the drivers there because it attracts money, knowing that the drivers are in the party. And once you’re there you don’t get bothered.

You have a VIP drivers’ area, and the security guy follows you to the toilet to make sure everything’s okay (which it would be, except for the fact that you have security guys following you to the toilet).

After winning Monaco in 2009, things got seriously messy. We partied after the race and then the next day, Monday, as the principality began to get back to normal after the weekend’s festivities, we started drinking again, about midday this was. Sitting at a bar on the beach, we were downing bottles of rosé, texting people to join us until there was a whole crew, and between the lot of us we caned ten magnums of rosé.

Next the call went up for a club, which opened especially for us, and there they opened a huge bottle of champagne, a balthazar, that is in fact 16 normal bottles of champagne in one (dwarfing my winner’s jeroboam, which is four bottles in one) and then we drank that, and then, just as we were winding down about to leave, they cracked open another one.

In the end, we finished at about one in the morning, and the next day christened our 13 hours of drinking ‘Super Monday’, which went on to became a bit of a Monaco tradition, podium or not.

Meanwhile, things have changed a bit. Back then there was a right crew – Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard to name but two – who all used to party after the race. Now it feels a little different. And while there are still some drivers painting the town various shades of red on a regular basis – don’t worry,

I won’t tell your mum, Max – they’re the exception rather than the rule. A lot of them go home. It’s a very different atmosphere. We were like, Do your job, let off steam; they’re like, Do your job, go home. I wonder if it’s social media, your every move photographed, tweeted and tracked, which we didn’t have 20 years ago, thank God.

As for me, I prefer restaurants these days. Parties? Nah. Nightclubs? Definitely not. Give me a good restaurant any day. Besides I can’t deal with the hangovers.

How to be an F1 Driver’ by Jenson Button is published by Blink. More info here.

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