x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Half-way around the world, yet Button is back home again

From his karting days to his efforts in disaster relief, Japan has a favourite son in Jenson Button.

A surprise race winner at Canada, Jenson Button is hoping he can manage a similar feat in Suzuka, where he pressured Sebastian Vettel into a rare mistake.
A surprise race winner at Canada, Jenson Button is hoping he can manage a similar feat in Suzuka, where he pressured Sebastian Vettel into a rare mistake.

Bright lights, busy streets and bamboozling signposts. That was the scene that greeted Jenson Button when he arrived in Japan for the first time as a 16-year-old go-karter. Weaker spirits might have crumbled, but Button revelled in the chaos.

Fifteen years later, the Englishman's affinity with East Asia has continued to blossom like a cherry blossom in the gardens of Kyoto.

Button has a long-term girlfriend in the form of the Japanese model, Jessica Michibata, rents an apartment in Tokyo and can speak enough of the language to deal with life's small troubles.

It is little wonder then the McLaren-Mercedes driver describes the country as his "second home".

"I came here for the first time in 1996," he told The National on Friday at Suzuka Circuit ahead of this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix. "I was racing karts and it was a real shock to the system.

"As a 16 year old, coming to Japan, it's such a different culture. At that point in time, where I was, I didn't understand anything: the road signs, street names, anything, because everything was in Japanese.

"It was very difficult, but I really enjoyed coming here because it was something very different."

Since making his racing debut on Suzuka's "phenomenal" karting circuit, Button has graduated to Formula One, raced for the Japanese car manufacturer, Honda, and maintained a 100 per cent record in finishing all 11 of his grands prix in the Land of the Rising Sun, with a third-place finish in 2004 his best result.

This week he has been particularly active on the social networking site Twitter, posting images aboard the local metro system, sheltering from a Tokyo rainstorm, and advising Mark Webber, the Red Bull Racing driver, where to visit to try exotic types of sushi.

"Obviously, a lot has changed from 1996 to now," he said.

"My experiences of being in Japan and obviously spending five or six years with a Japanese team, working with a lot of Japanese people and now being with a Japanese girlfriend, I have a lot of very good connections.

"I spend quite a bit of time here training, relaxing, eating good food - for me, it really does feel like home."

When the earthquake and resultant tsunami struck the east of Japan in March this year, killing more than 15,000 people, Button was one of the first - and arguably one of the most vocal - members of the F1 fraternity to appeal for humanitarian aid.

This weekend, as in Monaco, his crash helmet will carry a message to the people of Japan and be auctioned off afterwards with proceeds going to a charity for those affected by the catastrophe.

"The Japanese people are very strong," he said. "Obviously, we've seen a couple of big disasters this year in Japan, and we've seen how strong the Japanese people are, how they've really pulled together when they are in difficulty. We can all learn something from them and try to help out as much as we can."

Kamui Kobayashi, the only Japanese driver on the grid, has organised a bus trip and hotel rooms for 60 people from the disaster-hit Fukushima prefecture. Among the group will be a girls' choir, which will sing the Japanese national anthem ahead of Sunday's showpiece.

Sebastian Vettel, who will secure his second successive world championship this weekend so long as Button does not win, will carry the word "kizuna" on his helmet. "It means bond of friendship," the German said, adding he hoped it would inspire people "to stick together and support each other".

Button, who won the drivers' title in 2009, acknowledged the race for the 2011 world championship is "all but over", yet is nonetheless intent on claiming his first F1 win at Suzuka.

"For me, this is a circuit I would love to win on," he said. "It's all about the challenge and to come away with a victory here would be very special. I'm sure it would be overshadowed by a certain person winning the championship, but it would still be very enjoyable for myself."

It would also prove timely: the 31 year old and his McLaren team chose this week to announce they had agreed on a multi-year deal regarding a long-rumoured contract extension. Button joined McLaren from Brawn-GP after winning his maiden title.

It was a move that was billed as risky at the time considering he was joining a team that already had Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 champion, who had been with McLaren his whole career.

Button said he initially had concerns about joining McLaren; he was reluctant to become a second driver.

"It was the one question I asked," he said. "When you join a team where a driver has grown up or spent so much time with that team, you have to ask the question: Is he No 1? What's the deal? They assured me I would have equal treatment and that is why I signed the contract because that's all I want.

"I don't want to be No 1, I don't want better equipment than my teammate, because then there are always excuses why you are better than them."

This year he has performed not only better than Hamilton, but almost better than the entire 24-driver field. And yet he remains 124 points off the lead because of Vettel's dominance.

"Maybe we haven't been quick enough on occasions and on other occasions we haven't done the best with the package we have, but you have to stay positive," he said. "Sebastian deserves the title."

And of all 18 countries on the 19-race calendar, Japan deserves more than most to be the scene for celebrations and tears of joy.

"Generally we love coming here," Vettel said. "But this year it is special for us to come because of the earthquake. We will try to do as much as we can. It might just be a little bit to put a smile back on people's faces.