Jenson Button on Extreme E: ‘I’m doing it for the kids’

Published: 07 June 2021

► JBXE team boss says Extreme E is ‘scarier than F1′
► Becoming a dad has raised his green awareness
► Hopes to work with Lotus for ‘many years’

Formula 1 champion and current Extreme E team boss Jenson Button has admitted that competing in the new electric off-road race series has been a huge learning curve: for him, for his team and for technical partners Lotus Engineering.

Button combined his roles as team principal and co-driver – alongside touring car ace Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky – in round one in Saudi Arabia. But for last weekend’s round two in Senegal, Åhlin-Kottulinsky was joined by Kevin Hansen, a rallycross specialist, who like his fellow Swede had taken part in pre-season Extreme E testing. That left Button, the 2009 F1 champion, to focus on supervising the team from his home in California.

Extreme E: how was the first round? 

Button said: ‘I’m a racing driver and I love to race. It’s what I feel I’m on this Earth to do – race cars. But for me this was too good an opportunity, to have Kevin in the car and hear his thoughts on the vehicle. It’s weird not being at the race, but when you’re on the outside looking in you see things that you don’t when you’re on the ground.

‘It’s a weird role being a team principal, it’s a very grown-up role. I’m really focusing on what the team are up to – it’s not just the business side of things like a lot of team principals. I’m more like an engineer/spy.’

His move seems to have paid off: the JBXE car was ranked third at the end of the Senegal round. Top honours again went to Nico Rosberg’s team, whose drivers Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor also won in Saudi Arabia, when JBXE finished well off the podium.

No word yet on whether Hansen will keep his race seat for round three in Greenland in August, or whether Button will return immediately.

‘It’s great that we’ve got Kevin. He does bring a lot of experience. It will give us a lot of information moving forward. I want to drive, I want to race the car. However scary it is, I want to race the car.’ 

Scary? ‘In an F1 car you kind of know the limits. You stay within the white lines. This thing could throw you through a bush and it might be okay but there might be a giant boulder on the other side. So it’s definitely a bit scarier than F1.’ 

How did Button get involved in Extreme E?

‘I thought it was an exciting new category. My father used to race in rallycross back in the ’70s and early ’80s, so I spent a bit of time with him enjoying off-road racing. I loved it. It felt really grassroots. It was so much fun – such a great atmosphere.

‘Initially I was trying to go down the rallycross route in terms of owning a team, but that didn’t work out for me. But then the idea of Extreme E came along and it was obviously exciting because it was off-road racing, the best drivers in off-road from around the world. So the competition was fierce, but also bringing awareness of climate change at the five destinations where we race in around the world.

‘On the ship [the ‘floating paddock’ that follows the series around] there are scientists learning about the areas we’re going to. They’re spending time on the ground learning, and hopefully bringing more awareness to the regions, and trying to understand how we can help the world be a better place in the future for our kids. Having children, your views definitely change, certain things become more important to you. It’s how you leave the place. We’re not here for a long time, but for me to leave it in a better state than how we found it for our children, that’s something I’m trying hard to do.

‘It’s great that we’re able to work with these new technologies and develop them in Extreme E with Lotus Engineering, so that we can develop some great road cars that are better than combustion engines in every way possible… apart from the sound.’

How did he find his time at the wheel in round one?

Challenging. Button was conscious that he was struggling compared to some of the drivers from more dirt-focused backgrounds.

‘I have driven off-road in different things around the world, mostly here in the States, in vehicles that have a lot more suspension travel than in Extreme E, so it’s a bit of a shock. For me it’s all about learning. I want to do stuff that’s challenging. That’s the reason why I left F1, to try new things in motor racing – to challenge myself. There’s always room to learn and improve, and that’s what excited me about racing in Extreme E.

‘For me the exciting thing will be in two or three years’ time when hopefully it opens up a little bit more, with the EV technology but also in terms of suspension technology, because there’s a lot of room for improvement there.’

How’s Button feeling after his team got a podium in round two?

‘I’m very happy for the team after Senegal; I think a lot has been learnt from the first round in Saudi and even throughout the weekend in Senegal. There is very limited running in these cars, but Mikaela, Kevin and the team did a really good job of moving forward with the balance of the car, giving themselves more confidence, because it was a really tricky terrain. They coped with it really well, pushing the car hard, but not over-driving it. 

‘They both had fantastic starts – Kevin in the semi-final did a great job off the line, and his pace, and then Mikaela’s, to hold the lead was great. In the final, Mikaela again got a good start, but the smallest of touches with Veloce damaged the suspension and it meant that it was a DNF for the team. Even so, she was able to drag it a little bit further than the X44 car, so we got P3 and a podium. 

‘It’s nice to have a bit of silverware for the team – we’re all pretty chuffed with it, but we’re also disappointed as we really felt that we had a chance to challenge for the win. Mikaela was actually leading when the suspension failed – so, it was a real shame, but great points and we’re running third in the championship now. 

‘Mikaela has improved so much from the first day that she jumped in the car. She was quick from the word go, and she’s like a sponge – she picks up every bit of information possible. And Kevin did a fantastic job to jump in and be that competitive, using his experience of driving the Extreme E car, other electric vehicles and rallycross cars. And it wasn’t just his speed, but the way that he worked with the team so well. It’s lovely to have him as part of the team, and it means that moving forward we have some tough decisions to make. I’m really happy and looking forward to the next round in Greenland.’ 

This isn’t Button’s only link with Lotus…

He’s also a key player in the reborn Radford marque – a project that involves Lotus know-how. But it wasn’t his plan to work with the Norfolk sports car makers on two different fronts at the same time.

‘You probably won’t believe this, but it was a coincidence, the Radford thing. I’d been speaking to Lotus for quite a while about working together. A lot of development work done in sport is used in road cars. With so much of a push to electrification, it has to be a fantastic playground for manufacturers to explore and prove their systems. It’s a fun way to do it as well.’

And just what is it about Lotus?

‘The Elise was the first car I really wanted as a kid. I was 17, I lived in Frome, I had a Cavalier at the time because it was all I could afford. I used to drive to Lotus in Bristol just to sit in the Elise. I wasn’t allowed to drive it, because I was too young, but it was the car I wanted. I was racing in karts at the time, just moving up to car racing, and for me it was all about the lightness of the vehicle, about the connection with the driver and the vehicle. That was the car to have. Lotus really works on that driver-car connection; “hashtag add lightness” has always been the way with Lotus, and that’s what I love. Basically the Elise felt like a big go-kart.

‘I used to watch F1 in the ’80s. I was born in 1980. Watching Ayrton in the Lotus, in that beautiful colour scheme, seeing him win his first race at Estoril [in 1985], it was a very special manufacturer and team. That’s where I wanted to be – racing a Lotus. It’s a shame they weren’t in F1 when I got there. It’s kind of a childhood dream to work with Lotus.’

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions