Article published on February 15, 2018.
Jenson Button is one of only ten British drivers to have been a Formula One World Champion. It is a prestigious accolade, in a sport that is neither for the faint- or half-hearted. But it is not a sport without its critics, for the part engineering plays in a driver’s success or failure, the huge payouts that accompany the competition, and the apparent playboy lifestyle. What you hope for from any autobiography is honesty, transparency and a willingness to discuss the difficult issues, though I find it is rare that it feels as if an athlete is prepared to give a warts and all version of their life, to speak out about the ups and downs without worrying about their reputation, but Jenson does just that, speaking frankly on all of the criticisms that plague the sport and more tellingly on the relationships with his team bosses, fellow competitors and ‘teammates’. The latter especially provides a great insight into what it means to be part of a Formula One ‘partnership’, and though Jenson doesn’t pull any punches on any of his rivals, he always maintains respect and dignity, and manages to include some objective praise for each of his teammates however difficult the relationship he shared with them. Not all of his competitors, however, come out of the book favourably, but it is refreshing to see such honesty and candour; after all, athletes are first and foremost competitors and part of that competition depends on rivalry, so it always seems a little disingenuous if athletes insist there is no friction or hostility. Jenson though makes those rivalries clear, both on and off the track.
However, what really drives (excuse the pun) this autobiography is another relationship – that between Jenson and his father, John. Indeed, nearly all of part one, which focuses on Jenson’s earliest driving experiences, showcases a really special and wonderful father-son dynamic. Indeed, as important as the driving seems to be to both Jenson and his father in his early years, it is the time and passion they share that really seems to define this period in Jenson’s life, and arguably cement his love for the sport. Jenson really brings his father to life and what emerges is a warm, affable and positive character who relishes his son’s every achievement, from his first karting race through to his World Championship. Jenson’s father remained a stalwart of his career as he made his way up through the ranks of Formula One to the very top of the tree in 2009. And although he doesn’t feature as heavily in Part 2, in which the book gets more into the nitty-gritty and mechanics of racing, he’s always there, a reassuring presence and friendly face in the paddock. His unexpected death in 2014 therefore really hits hard and the impact on Jenson comes across loud and clear in the book. Indeed, although this is a book about Jenson Button and his career, the sport of Formula One and its highs and lows, above all it is a tribute. A tribute to the sport that cemented his relationship with his father, a tribute to the man who introduced him to the sport and stood by him every step of the way, but most of all a tribute from an adoring son to his father.
Life to the Limit left me with a much greater appreciation of motor racing and the effort that goes into becoming a Formula One driver and champion, and also a greater understanding of Jenson as a driver and a person. But its lasting impact was to demonstrate that though he’s a fierce competitor and a determined athlete, Jenson Button is, like the rest of us, just a son who wants to make his father proud. And having achieved a distinction that very few ever do, World Champion, I think it’s fair to say it’s mission accomplished.
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