F1 Champion Jenson Button Will Make His British GT Debut at Silverstone Finale
2009 World Champion’s first go at GT3 racing will happen in a McLaren, fittinglyby Michael Fira, on LISTEN 08:49
Jenson Button has started 306 Formula 1 Grand Prix races and won 15 of them while also bagging the 2009 Drivers’ World Title driving for Ross Brawn’s team but he’s never raced a GT3 race car. All that is about to change with Button set to compete in the Silverstone 500 in November behind the wheel of a McLaren 720S GT3 entered by the squad he co-owns, Jenson Team Rocket RJN.
Jenson Button the GT racer
At the age of 40, Button has already had quite an amazing career highlighted, of course, by a 15-year stint in Formula 1 that saw him race for the likes of Honda, Williams, Benetton, Renault, BAR-Honda, and McLaren although he found success driving for Brawn GP in the team’s only season of existence. Since retiring from F1, he’s been seen racing (and winning) mostly in Japan, a country where he’s been able to build a huge fanbase especially due to his position as a Honda man for years. Now though, he’s preparing what he’ll surely hope to be a triumphant return home.
Little over two weeks separate us from the day when the title will finally be decided in the burgeoning British GT Championship, the SRO-sanctioned GT series in the UK that sees GT3 and GT4 machinery share the track in exhilarating spring and endurance events on tracks like Oulton Park, Snetterton, Brands Hatch, or Donington Park. The season finale that takes place on November 7, 2020, will see over two dozen cars race around Silverstone’s GP layout for three hours in the Silverstone 500 race.
This will be the first time that Button will race at Silverstone since competing there for McLaren in F1 four years ago.
At the time, though, he was an F1 veteran and he finished his final British GP in a lowly 12th, ahead of team-mate Alonso but out of the points and one lap down on winner Hamilton at a time when the Honda/McLaren partnership had yet to yield any sort of results and Alonso was comparing the Japanese engine to a GP2-level unit.
Nowadays, though, things are quite a bit different. After leaving F1 at the end of ’16 (barring a one-off run at Monaco in 2017), Button competed for a short while in the Super GT but did so very effectively as he won the Driver’s Title in his first full season in the GT500 ranks driving Team Kunimitu’s Honda NSX. He and Naoki Yamamoto only won once but a consistent string of good results was all it took for the Briton to add another title to those he earned racing Formula Fords in his youth and the all-important F1 title.
The bout with Super GT ended last year and, while all that was happening, he did manage to make time for five appearances behind the wheel of SMP Racing’s BR Engineering-built LMP1 car. He debuted for Boris Rotenberg’s team at Le Mans in 2018 but the car was one of the last to retire when the engine let go. Subsequently, he scored a podium for the team at Shanghai that same year.
Button will know how to channel all that endurance racing experience as he prepares to race a GT3 car for the first time, something his former Brawn GP and Honda team-mate Rubens Barrichello has done already before (he competed in the 24 Hours of Spa for Strakka in a Mercedes-AMG GT GT3). Conveniently, Button established his own racing team towards the end of 2018 together with Chris Buncombe so he shouldn’t be worrying about the competitiveness of his set of wheels. Moreover, it will be Buncombe himself that’ll be partnering Button meaning he’ll have someone with tons of GT3 racing experience on his shoulders to learn from.
More about Jenson Team Rocket RJN
The team came together as Buncombe and Button wanted to expand into GT racing at the same time as Bob Neville’s RJN team’s contract with Nissan was ending. RJN thus jumped onboard and is basically running the show from behind the scenes. In 2019, the team competed full-time in the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup with a Honda NSX GT3 Evo that was entered in the Silver Cup. Philipp Frommenwiler was the team’s mainstay driver while the likes of Matt McMurry, Ricardo Sanchez, or Struan Moore all drove the white-and-dayglo yellow Honda.
A 13th place on the team's debut at Monza (fifth in Silver Cup) was the only highlight of an otherwise tough season that saw the outfit switch from one of Button's favorites to another or, in other words, from Honda to McLaren.
As we’ve written before here on TopSpeed.com, Jenson Team Rocket RJN was originally supposed to embark on another journey through Europe racing in the Endurance Cup with a sole 720S GT3 for World’s Fastest Gamer James Baldwin to star in. But due to the COVID pandemic, the team swiftly moved to a British GT-only program and Baldwin teamed up with McLaren young gun Michael O’Brien to great effect.
The duo got up to speed straight out of the box claiming pole position at Oulton Park for the first race of the season. With Baldwin the hotshoe in qualifying (he’s proved that by scoring a few more poles since), the team shone in that very first race as the youngsters converted their pole position start into an outright win. More class wins followed at both Brands Hatch and Donington (races 5 and 6 of the year) meaning the two lay fourth in both the outright standings and the Silver Cup standings.
With 37.5 points awarded for victory in the Silverstone 500, Baldwin and O’Brien still have an outside shot at the overall title and they certainly cannot be dismissed from the Silver Cup title race either as they’re currently just one point behind Jordan Witt and Jack Mitchell who sit third in the standings and 32.5 points shy off leaders Sam Da Han and Patrick Kujala. The team, meanwhile, is fourth as well albeit four points off third-placed 2 Seas Motorsports that has routinely entered two McLarens while Silverstone 500 will be the first race for Jenson Team Rocket RJN as a two-car operation.
Button’s place in British GT history
"It will be lovely to join our team and lining-up in the McLaren 720S with my best buddy Chris Buncombe. It’s great to come back and race on UK soil again," said Button of his opportunity to compete in the British GT. Buncombe, as mentioned, has racked up an impressive amount of GT3 races in the past few years and is even a former Endurance Cup champion (in the Silver Cup ranks) back when he was racing for Strakka Racing. Having said that, he too has never driven the McLaren 720S GT3 competitively nor has he starred in a British GT race since 2018 when RJN was still running the Nissan GT-R.
Buncombe, though, will be the ’amateur’ half of this Pro-Am lineup as he’s got a Bronze rating as per the FIA while Button is a full-fledged Platinum driver. The latter last won at Silverstone over two decades ago, all the way back in 1999 when he triumphed in a British F3 round that was actually on the same bill as the British GT. 1999 was, oddly, also the year when Button raced for the first and (thus far) only time in the Spa 24 Hours although at the time it was a touring car-only race and he competed for BMW FINA Team Rafanelli in a 3 Series E46 sedan.
"Being back at Spa next year as a team is absolutely our plan," Buncombe told Autosport. "If that worked with Jenson’s schedule, I know he definitely has appetite to do the race, I have appetite to go back there and I love that race, so yes if it worked out that is possible." If all that happens, Button will enlarge the list of former F1 drivers to have done the Spa 24-hour race and, what is more, the Briton will also be on another shortlist once he competes in the Silverstone 500 - that of former GP drivers to have raced in the British GT.
Some of the more famous folks already in the ’club’ are Ivan Capelli (ex Leyton House, Ferrari, and Jordan among others), who made a one-off appearance aboard a Veloqx Racing-entered Ferrari 360 GTC at Donington in ’02, and Mark Blundell (ex Brabham, Ligier, and McLaren), who raced for United Autosports in a McLaren in 2013. The list includes Martin Donnelly (with a one-off run during 1993 that ended with a podium finish), Julian Bailey (who took the crown in ’99 driving a GT1 Lister Storm), Tiff Needell (who’s also won many races driving for Lister although he’s better known as a TV personality while his F1 exploits with Ensign has fallen into obscurity), and Mike Wilds.