Vitaly Petrov,Mikhail Aleshin and Jenson Button celebrate a podium finish in Shanghai.
Newly crowned Super GT champion Jenson Button is enjoying racing again after a couple of tough years toward the end of his full-time F1 career, which ended after the 2016 season.
2018 has been a memorable year for the 2009 Formula 1 World Champion. A week after winning the hotly contested Super GT Championship in his first full season — racing for Honda in the GT500 class with Team Kunimitsu — Button raced to a podium finish for SMP Racing in this weekend’s 6 Hours of Shanghai.
“It’s been a good couple of weeks! Winning the Super GT Championship and getting a podium here; it’s been a fun year for me,” he said. “After a couple of tough years in F1, taking a year off and coming back to do reasonably well I’m back and I’m enjoying it.
“It’s been a couple of years since I’ve enjoyed racing.”
The Briton, who finished third overall in yesterday’s 6 Hours of Shanghai, earned his first piece of WEC silverware after a hard-fought race through adverse weather conditions.
“It was a tough old day for everyone, even the GT cars were struggling with aquaplaning,” he explained to RACER and select media after the race. “I think the red flags and safety cars [caused by heavy rain], which may have looked over the top on TV, were necessary as these cars don’t run in those conditions. It was a really good call; the first green flag I was surprised at, the second one was good though and we got racing.
Once the race got going in the second half and the rain level decreased, Button was encouraged by the battle in the privateer LMP1 ranks between SMP Racing and Rebellion Racing, which to this point in the season has been rather one-sided in favor of the Swiss-flagged effort.
“It was good fun and we were fighting with the Rebellions; a couple of times we were in front of the Toyotas, but we could do nothing about the them with their four-wheel drive systems. But we pushed as hard as we could and only finished a lap down. For us it wasn’t too bad a day at all, no major issues aside from a drive-through and a little spin.”
Before the race, Button said he felt the No. 11 BR1 had the pace to qualify well in the dry. But issues with the set-up cost the team a chance at a good grid slot, dropping Button, fellow ex-F1 driver Vitaly Petrov, and former IndyCar regular Mikhail Aleshin to the seventh starting spot, almost two seconds off the pole time.
“[Saturday] I was really excited but we made a mistake on the car, the suspension was off, the ride height was off and there was massive bouncing,” he explained. “That was annoying but today we did a good job as a team, the pit stops went well and the guys made good calls. We stayed calm.
“We didn’t do that in Fuji, but we did this time.”
A key part of the team’s success, aside from the BR1 proving to be the stronger of the two front-running privateer chassis, was the team’s strategic calls and quick pit work.
“It felt like we were quicker,” he said. “We were able to get heat easier in the tires; on a long stint they were quicker towards the end and we were quicker towards the beginning. You have to take that into account with pit stops and strategy.
“The stops were good, and we were able to refuel quicker. We lost only two seconds a stop to Rebellion — it was five at Fuji. At Fuji were we just slower, it was more fair here and down to the driving. It was great, there were some good fights. At one point I got into second and was catching Fernando [Alonso] for the lead and then I just totally destroyed my tires. They felt good for a couple of laps but it was fun to be able to stick with the Toyotas for so long.”
Next up on the FIA WEC calendar is the 1,000-mile race at Sebring in March, and should the race stay dry Button feels the team has renewed optimism in its chances against Rebellion. It knows where improvements need to be made over the winter months.
“I think the car is good, we just need to work on suspension, if we can improve that area the car will be strong, because aerodynamically the car is very strong,” he explained. “You can just feel that as the downforce comes off going into a corner that you lose all grip. There’s areas to improve, and the big one is Le Mans next year which comes round quickly. If we have the reliability, which seems much better now, we can be competitive at the big one!”