When Jenson Button bowed out from Formula One at the end of last season there was a sense he was entirely comfortable with his decision. The British driver was almost demob-happy in his final races after a long career that had begun in 2000 for Williams, included a world championship for BrawnGP in 2009 and concluded with seven years at McLaren.
Although the latter had retained Button on sabbatical this year with an option for 2018, it was clear he did not really expect to climb behind the wheel again.
The 37-year-old will have to dust down the race suit once more after McLaren announced he will replace Fernando Alonso at the Monaco Grand Prix, while the Spaniard competes in the Indianapolis 500. Button’s skills will not have faded during the short-lived period of R&R but a tough task awaits.
Before the final round in Abu Dhabi last year, there was no doubt he was looking forward to retirement. “At this moment in time, I don’t want to be racing in F1 beyond this year,” he said. McLaren had few serious options and having a driver who knows Monte Carlo well – Button has raced there 16 times, winning in 2009 – made him the obvious choice.
Lewis Hamilton recognises how important knowledge of the street circuit is, saying: “He is still one of the best drivers and his calibre and his experience are still higher than any other driver that would be able to take that spot.”
Monaco, alongside Suzuka, is one of the few circuits Button will be happy to once more contest, as he acknowledged. “I couldn’t think of a better place to make that return than my adopted home grand prix: Monaco,” he said. “It’s one of my all-time favourite racetracks. It’s a tricky street circuit on which a good driver can really make a difference.”
It is also a circuit where McLaren’s power deficit will not be such a hindrance. They will not be winning in Monte Carlo but Button can expect to put up a decent battle to be in the points – a task Alonso found so unedifying he chose Indy instead.
Button will doubtless be fit enough to perform. He has been competing in the Ironman triathlon championships but his biggest challenge will be adapting to his new car on a circuit where there is no margin for error. The 2017 cars have much more downforce, are wider, heavier, faster and more physical to drive. His rivals will have had testing and five races by Monaco on 28 May to adapt but Button will be climbing in cold. There is a test next week in Bahrain after the grand prix but McLaren have said Stoffel Vandoorne and the development driver Oliver Turvey will be taking part.
Button has said he will do simulator laps of the circuit but he will have to adapt to the physical handling and that will take track time. There will be another milestone in it for the old hand when the race begins – his 306th start will equal Michael Schumacher as the second highest behind the 322 of Rubens Barrichello. Putting in a good performance will require him to get up to speed in no short order on the streets of Monaco. Perhaps not quite what he was expecting to be doing when he hung up his gloves and although he is happy, he noted that at this stage it was a very singular encore. “I’m thrilled,” he said, “to be making a one-off return to Formula One racing.”
Hamilton goes into Sunday’s race in Bahrain level on points with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and the Sakhir circuit should reveal more about the relative form of their cars. It is a stop-start track, heavy on brakes and requiring good traction out of the corners. Temperature too will be key – Hamilton’s Mercedes struggled with tyre wear in the warmth of Australia, where Vettel won, and he believes the Ferrari, which is less punishing on its rubber in the heat, will hold an advantage. Vettel topped first practice, although as the race begins at 6pm local time (4pm BST) and goes into darkness the temperature will be dropping.
Mercedes and Ferrari have looked reasonably matched in the constructors’ championship and both teams need their other drivers to step up in Bahrain. Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas spun behind the safety car in China – costing his team points and they need him to put his car in front of Vettel in qualifying, with the German having been second to Hamilton in the opening two races. Equally Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen has had an indifferent start. The Finn has struggled, unhappy with the front-end of his car and has been issued with hurry-up orders by the Ferrari president, Sergio Marchionne, after finishing fourth and fifth.