But a flood of recent upgrades have helped McLaren make real progress in recent weeks, culminating in a fine fourth place for Button at his home event in Great Britain. On the eve of the race in Germany we caught up with F1’s most experienced driver to talk about improving in 2014, team mates, the future, and much more…
Q: Jenson, from what we’ve seen in the two free practice sessions on Friday there is visible improvement at McLaren. How did things go today?
Jenson Button: It is so difficult out there in these temperatures - especially with the supersoft tyres. We found it very difficult to make them work correctly and not to overheat them. In the afternoon we had 58 degrees on the track - and that is quite a number! Right now it’s a bit of an issue to make our long runs work and there are a number of cars out there that are quicker than us - quite different to what we saw at Silverstone. We did test lots of interesting things today and I am waiting for something new on my car tomorrow, which I didn’t have today. But if you only have Saturday morning it will have to be seen if that’s enough to implement new things.
Q: Obviously this new ‘thing’ is a new rear wing - and your team mate Kevin [Magnussen] was already running it today…
JB: …so you’ll have to ask him how it worked. I will get it tomorrow morning.
Q: How much of a difference was I not having FRIC suspension on the car?
JB: It was no difference at all.
Q: Since 2009 and your glorious title win there has been a lot of water under the bridge. How do you deal with the fact that winning has become such an elusive thing?
JB: You still feel that you are winning at some things. You’ve got the best out of the car; have done the best job possible and beating cars you shouldn’t have - that feels like a small victory - not a win of course - but a small victory. Like Silverstone two weeks ago coming in fourth. It’s tough not winning, so you have to bag these small victories when you can.
Q: Going into races and knowing that winning is outside your reach - that’s a bit of a yawn. Where else do you look for the adrenalin?
JB: There are nineteen other drivers out there that know they cannot win - there are only two guys that can win. It’s tricky - and I go into every race doing the best I can…
Q: Maybe Ron [Dennis, McLaren Group CEO] is the new adrenaline for you?
JB: Ha, maybe true! But coming back to going into every race: of course there is always the hope that circumstances play to your advantage - and then you take it as it comes.
Q: There was some irritation about what Ron said about your performance. Is that still something that is still lingering or already water under the bridge?
JB: That’s history. This here is the pinnacle of motorsport and we all sometimes end up in high tension situations, but in the end we all want to do what’s best for the team. Ron knows what I can do - that is important.
Q: Again, you have a new team mate: You are probably the driver with the highest number of different team mates in the paddock. Who has been the best match for you?
JB: Probably Rubens [Barrichello]. Rubens’ feedback was very good. I felt that we both gave equally good feedback and we could move the team forward because of that. With Lewis it was good because it was such a challenge. When you beat Lewis you knew that you did a really good job. But Rubens was the closest when we were team mates.
Q: Now you have a rookie team mate for the first time in your F1 career. How is it working at a time when the team needs all the right input it can get?
JB: Initially I knew that he was very quick but obviously he still has a lot to learn. Being a rookie at McLaren is very different to being a rookie in any other team. For years Kevin has been trained up to be a Formula One driver one day and he arrived here with quite a bit of information about the car and the team and the way of working within the team - so yes, he was quite experienced. And yet he still has so much to learn in the first few races. And you can see that. He’s gained more experience and confidence in his ability to set up a car.
Q: So his Melbourne podium was a bit of a lottery win?
JB: It was a fantastic start to his F1 career - but he has realised now that it is more difficult going into an F1 season. Melbourne probably sent the signal that it is all going to be easy, when we all know that it’s not.
Q: If Rubens was the best team mate in terms of developing the car - where is Kevin? Are you the man to do that work mostly yourself?
JB: In the beginning I did. But now Kevin’s feedback is very good, as he has gained confidence to give feedback. Now I would say that as team mates we do now have a good balance.
Q: You have joined McLaren when it was a significantly different team - now Ron is back, Martin Whitmarsh has gone and Eric Boullier is the man to run the sporting side of the team. Can you characterise McLaren before and after these changes?
JB: Well, Ron was here when I arrived. He was still here in 2010. In fact it was only one year that he wasn’t here. Actually he was always here - just not at the circuits. There are changes, of course. And in a difficult situation that we are in it is good to have somebody who is strong - and a little bit forceful! And Eric fits the bill. He has done a good job given the time he’s been here. It’s not an easy situation for him.
Q: You must remember that 2012 season when at the end of the season McLaren had the best car - and then came the decline. And you’re nearer the end of your career than the beginning…
JB: That doesn’t really touch me: I still have one of the best jobs in the world. If you said ‘It’s terrible’ then I would answer ‘Not really - I’m still racing in Formula One, I travel the world, have a great family, a beautiful fiancée.’ There is only one thing that could make this situation better - if we got a slightly better car - but in the overall picture that’s a small thing.
Q: How much of a bloodletting was the departure of Paddy Lowe?
JB: I don’t think that this was a big problem. I got along with Paddy very well over the years, but I think he felt that he was only overlooking situations at the end of his time here, and he left the team to find a different role at Mercedes. I think that he hadn’t anything more to achieve here in his role at McLaren.
Q: When looking at Mercedes many forget that the basis for what we see now was laid last year. Knowing Ross Brawn very well, how much of that miracle would you attribute to him?
JB: The basis to that ‘miracle’ was laid three years ago when they started buying all the top aerodynamicists! If you look at what Mercedes has spent in the last years it would be astronomical in terms of employing the right staff. In a way it’s a bit like what Red Bull did years ago and it’s going in the same direction as Red Bull. So yes, it’s going to be difficult to catch them up in the next couple of months. Don’t get me wrong. Mercedes has done an incredible job. They knew exactly what to do to achieve.
Q: McLaren is a ‘must win’ team. How much of a clash are expectations and reality? And when will these two match again?
JB: I don’t know. We are all working very hard to improve - but who knows? It is difficult to lay a time limit to it. To beat Mercedes is pretty much impossible, but we will end the season with a reasonably strong car. There will no rule changes for 2015, but this team obviously will have a new engine partner so that makes it very difficult to say where we are going to be next year. Improvement is the magic word and hiring the right staff. I think we are doing a good job at this.
Q: That sounds like you’re confidence that you will be at McLaren next season…
JB: Yeah, I am pretty confident.
Q: Sooner or later you will have to think about life after F1. What will that look like?
JB: I have no vision of that. I can’t see an 'afterlife' for me after F1. When my afterlife comes my afterlife comes. Right now Formula One is my life. This is where I am - and where I want to be.