I MET Jenson Button at a car vehicle leasing office in Stockport once. Well, I say met. Perhaps that’s putting it a bit strongly. But we were in the same room for, ooh, at least 15 minutes. Disappointingly, he didn’t sing We Are The Champions – or any of Queen’s hits.
Instead, he sat on a stool on a stage in front of more than 200 members of staff at the Lex Vehicle Leasing site in Cheadle Heath, and tried to contain his bemusement as one of the throng asked him: “Which five words most inspire you?”
It was a chilly, sunny Friday morning in September 2005, and Button had whizzed in from Monaco via helicopter and sports car to visit the leasing site as part of his corporate commitments to Honda, his team at the time.
A group of local journalists excitedly assembled in the building’s reception area, all of us hoping for the chance to ask Button a couple of questions. We wanted to get him to talk about the Formula One championship, while maybe throwing in some kind of local angle too.
This is a technique often used when a local reporter quizzes a national figure, although you have to be careful not to get too parochial, otherwise you’ll confuse your interviewee.
It’s fine, if banal, to ask: “Are you enjoying your trip to Stockport, Jenson?” But you’d probably be setting the bar a bit high if you asked: “Jenson, do you think the introduction of bus lanes on the A6 has eased traffic flow between Stockport and Manchester, or do you feel that ultimately some kind of localised congestion charge is the only way to go?”
As it turned out, we didn’t get the chance to ask Jenson anything. His public relations people told us that he wouldn’t be doing any interviews. He didn’t have time. Instead, he would be doing a public question-and-answer session with the Lex Vehicle Leasing staff, as arranged, and that would be it.
He was already running late, it was explained, and had to fly straight to Birmingham afterwards for another Honda-related corporate visit, before whizzing on to Warwick and Farnborough. (And people say that the life of an F1 driver is all glamour.)
Not surprisingly, this left the TV and radio reporters rather miffed. But as a newspaper man, at least I had the option of sitting in on the Q&A and hoping that one of the questions from the audience might provoke a newsworthy answer from Button – who was, at the time, trying to tie up the loose ends of a complicated contract wrangle involving Williams and BAR Honda.
The 200 Lex staff were allowed five questions between them, all vetted in advance. However, no one seemed to have bothered to tell Button what the questions would be, as when he was asked what his five favourite words were, he laughed, gamely flailed about for an answer, and then gave up.
A couple of the questions did touch on his contract situation, though, and his answers – although carefully considered – were interesting enough to make a story. And with that, he was back in the sports car and off to Birmingham.
Button actually came across as a charming and likeable chap, albeit someone who inhabits a different planet to us mere mortals. His ability to appear laid back under pressure has come in very handy this season during his tortuous progress to his first Formula One title.
His has been an F1 career full of ups and downs, team changes and contract troubles. But for someone who finished 2008 without a team to drive for following Honda’s withdrawal from the sport, Button has had a memorable 2009.
It wasn’t always certain he would remember it for the right reasons, and his stats for the season look rather lopsided – victories in six of the first seven races, none in the nine since.
But after finishing fifth in Sao Paulo yesterday, Button is the world champion. And judging by his choice of song in the cockpit as he crossed the line, I would guess that “champion” is one of his five favourite words these days. If he ever comes back to Stockport, I might check that with him.