While he will not be fighting for the win at Spa on Sunday, the urge to do battle, it seems, has diminished not a jot for . All the drivers love to come to this classic track, nestling in the Ardennes mountains, and face down what is a turbulent test and thrill-ride combined, but for Button enthusiasm for the challenge here perhaps also stirred his feelings for the sport as a whole as he reaffirmed both his commitment to Formula One and his own talent in the face of continuing questions about his future in the sport.
Strictly speaking, describing Button, who looks as youthful and fit as ever, as the grand old man of Formula One would be misleading. Kimi Raikkonen is the oldest driver on the grid, they are both 36, with the Finn three months older. But in terms of race starts the British driver is by some distance the most experienced in the field with 296 (third in the all-time list, behind Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher) in the 16 years since he first took to the track with Williams in 2000 as Britain’s youngest driver, aged 20. But rather than feeling those years, he exudes the air of a maturing fine wine in the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps.
“I’m probably driving the best I have in my career,” he said. “I put more and more pressure on myself every year. I feel I’m in the best shape physically and driving the best I ever have.”
He has earned that quiet confidence 16 years on from achieving his ride at Williams, when he famously won a shootout in front of Sir Frank Williams against the Brazilian Bruno Junqueira, and has since never left Formula One. Winning the world championship with Brawn was the highpoint in 2009 after which he switched to McLaren, where it was expected he would see out his career. For the past two seasons, however, his future has been hanging in the balance as contract renewals dragged on.
It is a sequence that has continued into 2016 with September again the earliest the team have said any announcement will be made on whether he will be replaced. If so it will almost certainly be by McLaren’s reserve driver, the 24-year-old Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne.
Button faces the questions about his future at every race weekend with calm stoicism but the interest is not surprising. Williams would be a good fit, given the prospect of bookending his career with them. Button is hugely experienced, popular with fans and sponsors and most importantly still has it on track. Wrestling this season’s recalcitrant McLaren is no mean feat but he has done so with admirable determination and skill. Five points finishes have resulted, two more than his team-mate Fernando Alonso.
He insists there are “multiple” driver options for him still open within Formula One for next year and that he is happy his recent performances have been strong enough to prove his point to McLaren. They have, he believes, been drives born of his abiding enthusiasm for the sport.
“Do I enjoy my racing? Yes. My heart is definitely in racing now, 100%,” he said. “At the last race I wouldn’t have finished eighth if my heart wasn’t in it. You have to give it your all to finish that far in front of your double-world champion team-mate.”
He has only the one win at Spa for McLaren – in 2012 – but sees no reason age should prevent him from bidding for more. “As long as you’re keeping your fitness in check,” he said. “Michael Schumacher, when he was racing, was fitter than 75% of the grid I’m sure. It’s definitely if your heart is still in it.”
The corollary to these veterans clinging on to their rides – and Ferrari have already re-signed Raikkonen for 2017 – has been considerable criticism that they are denying young drivers their shot at a drive. It is an argument that is given short shrift by Button. “I don’t feel anything for young drivers or old drivers,” he said. “If a team wants me to drive there they want me to drive there. I’m not going to move over for someone else. If I feel I still want to be in the sport I won’t move over because I think someone else needs a chance.”
He has 15 wins and 50 podiums and has contributed to some of the most memorable races of recent years: his debut win in the wet from 14th place at Hungary in 2006, the masterclass at Suzuka in 2009 and the fightback from last at Montreal in 2011, but is unlikely to add to the tally here. McLaren have spent seven engine tokens on upgrades for the race and installed a new engine but will still suffer on a track where power pays dividends and the Mercedes-engined runners should dominate.
The glorious challenge of Spa, however, will remain and Button on current form will positively revel in it. “I think I’m still doing a very good job,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can do a better job in this car than me.”