The Formula One circus kicked off its Indian leg on Wednesday evening with a glitzy evening at the British High Commissioner's residence in New Delhi with McLaren driver Jenson Button in attendance, articulate as ever.
Organised by NDTV to mark ten years of their Car And Bike Show, the event saw Button fend questions from various guests -- including the High Commissioner himself, Sir James Bevan ending the evening almost asking the champion driver out on a date. For his daughter.
One of the questions for the friendly Brit came, via video, from Shah Rukh Khan, -- who like us -- loved the movie Rush. Ron Howard's new film about rival F1 champions James Hunt and Niki Lauda focusses on a particularly dramatic and lethal year in motorsport history, 1976, and Khan wanted to know if the racing scenes were realistically portrayed, and if the rivalry was depicted accurately.
Button said he wouldn't want to be "far too critical" of racing movies as a racing driver, since "they can't film stunts at 200 mph, they film at 30-40 mph and speed it up," but he felt Rush did a "pretty good" job with the crashes. "And it did a great job showing what the drivers go through. Racing was incredibly dangerous at that point of time. The rivalry," Button laughed, "might have been exaggerated, since I've heard Lauda and James Hunt were best friends, but the competition they showed is real."
Calling himself more of a James Hunt type (while acknowledging that girlfriend Jessica Michibata would balk at that description since Hunt was "known for being a player") Button went on to explain the competitive edge between drivers. "When I'm racing, I want to win. And I want the other drivers to be unhappy." He described how, at age eight, after he won his first race, he took the top step of a podium and saw he had a bigger trophy than the other kids. "And that's what brought out the competitive edge."
Button's been racing for 25 years now. "But being a passenger in an Indian car three years ago was the most scared I'd ever been," he laughed. He went on about the mad traffic, but ended with reassurance: "But it works somehow."
He hasn't driven a car on Indian roads yet, and chickened out at the offer. "I have real… issues.. with people moving lanes without looking," he confessed, to raucous laughter.
Motorsport enthusiast Gul Panag wondered whether Button felt a greater advantage entering motorsport having raced from that early an age, and the driver launched into a near-philosophical explanation. "Starting anything at an age like eight is good, because you pick up things very fast. You learn quicker at that age. And you learn so, so much all the way through the ranks. But you're never ready for Formula One. Nothing prepares you."
He went on to talk about how you have to learn to follow instincts as much as you have to learn to defy them. "When you drive through a curve at 180 mph, it's different from doing it at 210 mph, but because our cars have such high downforce, you actually get more grip on the car when you're faster. So going faster is safer. But try telling yourself that."
Button is aware that modern F1 is a bit harder for the fans to follow.
"It's more of an endurance sport than a sprint," he admits, saying he's nostalgic for the 2004-2005 seasons, where they had 19-20,000 rpm at their disposal and the big V10 engines would scream around the circuit. With the Indian circuit struck off the calendar after this year and various nations vying for F1 rights, there have been talks to increase the number of races per season. "Speaking on behalf of the drivers, the more races the better," smiled Button. "That's all we know how to do and we love the chance to race. But for the teams, 22-23 races would be just too demanding. Hopefully the right people know the limitations of the human beings [involved in the sport], and also [the value of] relationships in Formula One."
It's been a rough year for Button and his McLaren team, with them nowhere near the front of the field, but the driver isn't letting that sap his spirits. "We've had a lot of negatives this year, but we're positive that next year's big rule change helps us a lot, because we are definitely on the back foot. We started this year one second behind everyone else. This kind of year can break a team. And I've seen that happen before", he admitted. "But we're charged up for the year ahead. We're looking forward to the new challenges."
"I don't know if I'm the best in the world," Button said after professing admiration for Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, "and I don't know if I'll ever be the best in the world. But I know that I'll do my very best on any given day."
Image: (left to right) McLaren driver Jenson Button, British High Commissioner to India James Bevan and Karun Chandhok
Photograph courtesy: Karun Chandhok on Twitter