Jenson Button walks in looking tanned and slim. Fairly tanned but very slim. It is the result of time spent training hard in triathlons, the hobby he loves and turns to his advantage as a svelte, alert athlete behind the wheel.
But the hard yards have been matched by a diet of ferocious self-denial to prepare himself for the 15th - yes 15th - season of his Formula One career, starting in Melbourne on Sunday.
The openness of the competition is a spur to Button, who admits the last two months have been “strange and difficult” since the death of his father, John, an ever-present, smiling supporter around the world.
With radical rule changes, the old order - Red Bull dominance week after week - looks likely to be threatened. The world champions have struggled in testing so badly that finishing the Australian Grand Prix would represent a remarkable feat of remedial work by the highly paid boffins.
Button, 34 and the most experienced man on the grid, will not mind if they do fail in that endeavour. “Not having Red Bull at the front now is good for the sport,” he said. “It’s sad to think like that but it’s a fact that they have been too dominant.
“Mixing up the racing and the grid will be good for the fans. It could be like 10 years ago when people were breaking down. Nobody has a clue who will be quick next week.”
MERCEDES ENGINE ADVANTAGE
The indications from testing are that the Mercedes-powered teams will hold the advantage. Button’s McLaren team are one such lucky recipient of the German manufacturers’ turbo-charged 1.6-litre power units. However, they appear to be slower than Mercedes themselves, for which Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will lead the charge, a resurgent Williams and the ever-improving Force India.
But Melbourne’s Albert Park track is something of a lucky charm for Button. In his championship year of 2009, he started with victory there. Ditto 2010 and 2012.
His routine while in the city involved coffee at the Stokehouse, the iconic restaurant overlooking Port Phillip Bay. It is also where he went in 2009 to tuck into fish and chips the day after winning the race. Alas, a fire razed it to the ground. A pop-up restaurant has plugged the gap (thank goodness).
But for Button the joys of eating King George whiting have been strictly rationed in any case. He is on the most rigorous diet of his life.The reason is that the new power units, with all their whizz-bang green gadgetry, are heavier and therefore the drivers must be lighter for maximum effect. Even the increase in the minimum weight of a car - from 642kg to 691kg - does not compensate adequately.
Button said that when he recently spoke to Hamilton, he noticed that he looked slimmer - and discounted the fact that his former team-mate’s new higher hairstyle was entirely responsible for creating the illusion. Hamilton stands 5ft 7in, Button 6ft, and therein lies the rub.
Button draws much of his diet from Japan, the home of his fiancée of a few weeks, Jessica Michibata, and a place he always loved. The morning he spoke to us, he had salmon for breakfast. Pickles, eggs and soups are about the limit of it. Cakes are out. “It’s very limited,” he said. “I am not on sugar or carbs.”
Button’s weight is now 71kg, a fraction over 11st, but he wants to shave a little more off before he takes to the grid. “You hear that high protein is bad for you,” he joked, referring to last week’s health stories. “What can you eat? Nothing.”
Turning more serious, he added: “I had a month off training because I had a knee injury and immediately put weight on. It has been difficult getting it off, even with all the training I do. I will be in a sauna or steam room before qualifying on Saturday and it’s silly that we have to do that.
“I understand jockeys have to be light, but this is Formula One and you shouldn’t penalise a driver for being tall. It should be his talent that stands out. The scary thing is even a kilo of weight can be half-a-tenth of a second and I have lost pole by two-hundredths. It can make a huge difference where you start a race.
“Next year, the regulations will change in terms of the weight limit — it will be 10kg heavier and drivers will be able to eat again. But I am not complaining. I have the best job in the world.”
While over at Mercedes, Hamilton is bullish about his chances of winning a second title six long and sometimes turbulent years after he won his first, saying he felt “equipped with all the tools I need”, Button contents himself with seeing McLaren in a healthier position than for some time. Ron Dennis is back as group chairman and CEO, with Eric Boullier, the new racing director, the hands-on boss. The budget for the season is the team’s largest ever: about £200million.
Although Dennis insists he is not going to be on the pit wall - what’s the betting he will be before the season is over? - his firm hand can be felt in the new optimistic mood at the team’s Woking factory.
Dennis warned journalists assembled for his re-introduction to Formula One not to judge the new regulations too soon.
He argued that it would take time to play out. He also predicted that the tortoise could beat the hare, again. In other words, those drivers who are clever and conserve fuel by sticking to the ingenious strategies can catch the gung-ho cavaliers.
So, too, could teams who start slowly find speed over a nine-month season and ultimately prevail.
That must be some cheer to Button, who, in this context at least, would not object to being described as perhaps the fastest — and slimmest — tortoise in the world.
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