Button: can he win Le Mans?

Well, what a great surprise. Jenson Button racing a Jaguar XJR-9 at Le Mans Classic in July is exciting. But now the 2009 Formula 1 World Champion has chosen to bring his La Sarthe debut forward by a month: he’s going all-out for an attack on the 24 Hours itself. Fantastic news.

I must say, I was surprised. In his press statement, Jenson said “it’s always been a dream of mine to race at Le Mans”, but that didn’t seem to be the case during his Grand Prix career. Button enjoyed 17 eventful years in the F1 bubble and for most of that time showed little interest in anything else going on in the wider motor sport world. I recall times when he was asked specifically about Le Mans, especially in his later years at McLaren, and he tended to be a little dismissive.

But like many of his ilk, now that F1 bubble has burst he’s gained some perspective. Always a good chap and a pure racer at heart, he’s embracing what else motor racing has to offer away from the cauldron of intensity that is life in F1.

Jenson’s affinity for Japan led him to commit to the fantastic Super GT national series, in which he scored a second place in the first round of 2018 at Okayama a few weeks back, partnering Naoki Yamamoto in Team Kunimitsu’s Honda NSX-GT – and his taste buds for endurance racing have clearly been tantalised.

Now along with his Japanese commitment, the 38-year-old has signed up for the Le Mans 24 Hours and a subsequent World Endurance Championship campaign with SMP Racing. Button will drive the new Dallara-built BR1 LMP1 alongside rapid Russian duo Vitaly Petrov and Mikhail Aleshin. He knows the former from Petrov’s time in F1 with Renault, while Aleshin has history as a talented Indycar racer. All in all, a potent line-up.

SMP Racing at the Prologue 2018

The big questions are how competitive the BR1 will be at Le Mans – and will it really have any chance of going the distance?

We’ll know more about the genuine speed of the new non-hybrid LMP1 after this weekend’s WEC ‘Super Season’ kick-off, the Spa 6 Hours (which Button is missing). At the WEC Prologue test at Paul Ricard it was the best of the new breed of privateer prototypes and only slower than the hybrid Toyotas.

Reliability is entirely another matter for SMP, as it will be for all the teams running new cars. Lasting six hours untroubled would be an achievement in Belgium, never mind over 24 in France.

So why has Button committed to this unproven programme? He has spoken bullishly of going to Le Mans to win, but can that really be a goal this year?

His old McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso is in an entirely different situation, of course. As a member of the only factory to compete in the top class, the Spaniard has a great chance of making a winning debut at the big race. That’s pressure.

Button? The pressure cannot be so great when he’s racing a brand new car. Expectations for Jenson will be nowhere near as high as they will be for Fernando – and that could play to the Briton’s advantage.

But again, can he really win? Well, Toyota has to be the hot favourite – but with its cursed record at Le Mans, nothing can be taken for granted. If the two hybrids falter, one of the privateers could pick up the pieces – and if that’s the case, it’s likely to be the one that has the least amount of trouble. In that case, why not SMP?

Then again, and rather bizarrely, Button’s best chance of a debut win might have actually been with a well-run LMP2 in the prototype second division. They might not have the pace of the top class, but they’re proven over this distance. Who can forget last year when the Jackie Chan DC Racing ORECA led overall and was only eventually beaten by a hybrid Porsche?

Whatever their fortunes, the addition of a pair of F1 world champions is a huge boost for the race, especially in the year following Porsche’s withdrawal. How they get on will be fascinating. All eyes will be on Button and Alonso on June 16/17.