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Formula 1 Champ Jenson Button Enjoyed His First NASCAR Race, But '40% of It Kind of Felt a Bit Silly'
The Brit made his Cup Series debut and finished 18th overall at the Circuit of Americas on Sunday.
As former Formula 1 champion Jenson Button discovered Sunday during the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at the Circuit of Americas in Austin, Texas, the difference between open-wheel single-seater F1 racing and NASCAR racing is far more dramatic than at first glance.
Sure, there are four wheels, a body and an engine, but such an oversimplification is certifiably criminal. There are strategic nuances, technological barriers, track delineations, conflicting rules and a slew of other differentiating elements that all coalesce to drive home the point that such a comparison of the two leagues is, well, beyond apples to oranges.
If he didn’t realize just how vastly different the two types of competitive auto racing are, enduring everything from heat exhaustion to trading paint with other aggressive drivers surely clarified things for him.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” Button told Racer magazine after the race. “First, it was terrible. I mean, I must’ve been last by the end of it, and I was just like, ‘Everyone: Go. I just need to drive and find a rhythm.’ I’ve never gone through a corner too wide so often. And trying to place my car in the right place — I just got it wrong every time.”
"I had to take a while to learn the racecraft, and I hadn't raced for three years either, so I've never hit a car — intentionally — and then after the first stint, when I changed tires, I was like, 'Guys, put me in clear air, I need some laps on my own,' and they did,” he told Fox Sports, according to Crash.Net. “They did a really good job on the pit stop, and I was able to run clear."
“Normally, if you’re a little bit slow through a corner, nobody tries to overtake you from the outside because they’re not going to make it all the way on the next one,” Button continued to Racer. “But here, they do because they get a wheel inside for the next one, and if you turn in, you turn around.”
Make no mistake about it, Button didn’t cross the pond for just any old joy ride. He’s here to compete with the best of the best in NASCAR’s top flight of racing. He’s every bit of the stud behind the wheel as advertised, notching 15 career wins in an impressive 17-year career that also saw him win the 2009 FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Still, the Cup Series is uncharted territory for any outsider, possessing a steep learning curve for even such an accomplished wheelman like Button.
“The first stint was really bad — it was embarrassing for me,” Button admitted to Racer. “I was like, ‘All right guys, we need to pit, freshen the tires and I need some air — I need some fresh air.’ I got that. The pace was good, consistency was good. I was really happy and passed a few cars which was nice.”
“We got a little bit unlucky with the safety car because it was just two laps before our window,” he added. “Pitted, then the next stint was mayhem. We also made a couple of changes that just didn’t work. Big oversteer — went from the car feeling great to really difficult to drive. I also had a massive whack from Kimi [Räikkönen], and it fell off after that. The car wasn’t quite right.”
One of the biggest issues for Button as well as other drivers was the oppressive heat baking them in their cars. Button nearly called it quits due to heat exhaustion.
“It was so hot,” Button lamented. “I don’t have a fan in my seat which really didn’t help me too much. It was so hot, I thought I was going to faint in the car. So, I stopped twice for a minute. They put ice on me, gave me loads of water, and I went back out.”
“I was so close to getting out of the car because I thought I was going to faint,” he noted. “I must’ve drank eight, nine bottles of water during the race. The team kept me calm, and it’s the reason why we got a good result in the end. So, I was happy.”
Another big adjustment was just how much contact there was on the track.
"You get to Turn 1 and everyone is in the way," he said. "People are braking later than me and they just hit a car and use that to slow down! That was the thing for me. It's just, I have to say, I enjoyed the race, I'd say 60% of it; 40% of it kind of felt a bit silly, the amount that we were hitting each other."
At the end of the day, Button still fared better than others, finishing in 18th place after initially qualifying 24th. Piloting the No. 15 Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing with support from Stewart-Haas Racing, Austin’s performance at COTA marks the first of three races Button will compete in. The other two races are the inaugural street race in Chicago on July 2 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course on Aug. 13. Hopefully, by then, Button will have gained more exposure to driving in heat and acclimated to the rising temperatures because summer races in those cities could turn into scorchers that no amount of water will tame.