Lewis Hamilton might have more victories and pole positions than any driver in Formula One history – with a record-breaking eighth world championship on the horizon – but Jenson Button believes his greatest achievement could still be to come.
George Russell, 23, who drove so superbly as Hamilton’s stand-in at last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix in Bahrain, is in contention to join the Silver Arrows next season as Valtteri Bottas’ stock continues to fall.
And Button believes that could prove a major challenge for the 36-year-old Hamilton if it happens.
“It will be a big shift for Lewis to have a young kiddie come to his team who has already proven himself to be very, very quick in that car,” says Button.
“That is mentally tough. It is going to be a challenge and if Lewis comes out on top, it will be his biggest achievement.”
It is a grand claim from the 2009 world champion, a former team-mate of Hamilton’s, but one granted gravitas here in Austria where the teams are preparing for the Styrian Grand Prix.
After this week stating his preference for Bottas to stay at Mercedes in 2022, Hamilton was then asked for his thoughts on fellow Briton Russell.
“On doing what?” he snapped back abruptly. “On being your team-mate?” came the reply. Hamilton responded: “Well he is not my team-mate currently so I don’t need to say anything on that.”
“It’s funny,” continues Button in an interview with the PA news agency. “George jumped into Lewis’ car in Bahrain and Lewis wished him luck. But Lewis didn’t comment at all on social media about how he went in the race because I think he was shocked out how quick he was.
“There is definitely something there and if they are team-mates it is going to be tricky for Lewis which is what we all want to see.
“But it is probably not what Mercedes want. It is much easier having a driver that is not as quick as Lewis in the team as long as he is bringing in the points. But at the moment, that’s the problem – Valtteri isn’t doing that.”
Indeed, ahead of Sunday’s race, Bottas is already 72 points off the championship summit. In the constructors’ standings, Mercedes have fallen 37 points behind Red Bull and without the brilliance of Hamilton, the grid’s all-conquering team could easily have been cast further adrift.
The seven-time world champion came up just five miles short in stopping rival Max Verstappen from winning in France last weekend following two strategy mistakes by his Mercedes team.
But in contrast to previous seasons, Hamilton, 12 points behind championship leader Verstappen, brushed off the defeat.
“Mentally, Lewis is in the best place he has ever been,” added Button, 41. “This year, something has clicked. He is more down to earth, more open, he walks in the paddock and says ‘hello’ to people and he even says ‘hello’ to them by name. When he has a bad race, he is like ‘it happens, it is frustrating and we move on’.
“I don’t know what has happened, what has changed, or if he has got someone who is helping him with feeling more relaxed, but he is as he should be.
“He has won seven world championships and he should be confident in his ability. He had some insecurities before – we all do as racing drivers – but this year he has really impressed me with how calm he is.”
Ten years ago, BBC’s Antiques Roadshow was cancelled as more than eight million people watched Button drive from last to win a delayed, rain-hit Canadian Grand Prix. Unsurprisingly, it is a race Button has selected among his favourites for the launch of Readly’s ‘Step back in time’ retro campaign.
Button was 20 when he started his F1 career, going on to compete in 306 grands prix, winning 15 times and taking the 2009 title before retiring seven years later.
This is his fifth season away from the grid. He lives in Bel Air, Los Angeles, with his American model fiancee, Brittny Ward and their two children, Hendrix, 2, and daughter Lenny, who was born in December.
But while Button is relishing being a family man, he admits it was difficult to adjust to life without his biggest passion.
“It is great to see the kids grow and when my little boy runs towards me and wants to give me a hug or wants to play with his cars, it is amazing,” said Button.
“But do I miss racing? Totally. I am playing with my son and my mind wonders: ‘What am I doing? Am I a stay at home dad? What is my direction in life?’ And when you have lived your whole life on the limiter to suddenly doing the opposite, it is tricky and initially I felt I did not have the right balance.
“I am a racing driver, I always will be. It was difficult and for six months because I didn’t know where my career was going to take me.
“I was flying private jets and getting the best table at a restaurant, which is the smallest thing, but it is a completely different world as a Formula One driver, it is the pinnacle, and F1 drivers don’t realise how lucky and privileged they are. They are treated like royalty.”
Button now works as a pundit for Sky, is employed by Williams as a senior adviser, and wants to race in the American IMSA SportsCar Championship next year. He is also a team owner in the all-electric off-road series, Extreme E, and is reviving Radford – a British coachbuilder that has recently announced a partnership with Lotus.
Button concludes: “When you have the right balance you are a better parent. I needed to withdraw from the home environment to get my excitement. I come home and it is so good to see the kids and you play with them for hours.
“My life now has a direction and the future for the next five years is exciting. It is life-changing when you step away from Formula One but I am in a fantastic place right now. My life as a normal human has started.”
:: Jenson Button is fronting Readly’s ‘Step back in time’ retro campaign. Visit www.readly.com/motorsport21 for more information or www.readly.com.