Jenson Button has enjoyed a diverse racing life following his final full-time Formula 1 season in 2016, and of all his experiences since he stepped away from the old day job, none took him further out of his comfort zone than a crazy adventure on the Baja 1000 in 2019. He hoped that experience would give him an edge in Extreme E, the new electric off-road series that kicks off in Saudia Arabia this weekend, but those thoughts have already been dashed following his first taste of the Al’Ula desert course.
The 41-year-old, who was F1 champion back in 2009, became one of a number to hit trouble during his single-lap shakedown of the roughly 5.5-mile route on Friday. He’d been warned that drivers were losing power over the bumps as the rear of the twin-electric motor Odyssey kicked up, so Button took it easy, and yet still found his self-owned JBXE entry dropping into neutral as he negotiated a dip just before the course crosses a service road. A systems reset allowed him to finish his lap.
“Maybe they’ll have to slightly change the route down there, because if that happens in qualifying it’s just a bit of a pain for everyone,” he said. “It’s definitely aggressive for these cars as there’s not a lot of suspension travel, so it hurts them quite a bit. Just feeling the route really it’s definitely extreme. There’s very low grip with these tires because they are made for every terrain that we race on, so it’s tricky in such deep sand. We’ve got a few things we want to do to the setup as well because it’s quite understeery. It is extreme.”
Exploring the extremes of the course with his electric Odyssey was an eye-opener for Button. Colin McMaster/Motorsport Images
So the Baja experience — any help? “I thought it would be but so far no!” he said. “Out the back there’s a section that opens up that’s very like Baja with three or four different lanes, but because it’s so bright you get a glare and it’s very difficult to pick the right line. You can’t see the undulation of the sand so it’s basically guessing a little bit, but that was not a problem at all. I think the car was working pretty well there, which was good.”
The signature section of the course that TV crews and photographers will love is the steep dune mid-way through the lap that requires nerve as you drop down from the lip. Carlos Sainz Sr. told RACER he was accelerating down the dune, and Button too had it all under control. But he said crossing the lip was an unnerving experience because of the heavy understeer he needs to dial out.
“Definitely it is, the first bit especially because I was so worried about getting the car turned,” he said. “I slowed down a lot but I had so much understeer still when I got there that I struggled to turn the car. As soon as I got on the downhill it was fine, I was like, ‘Ah good.’ Then you get to the bottom and it turns left, and there’s a big rock, some big scenery on the right-hand side — and more understeer. But it’s really good fun.
“I just hope we can either find another route or do something different with that area that’s shutting off the cars because people are only going to push more and it could be a bigger issue. I’m sure we’ll find a solution.”
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Button is teamed with Swedish touring car racer Mikaela Ahlin-Kottulinsky, who was due to experience her single-lap shakedown in the afternoon, before qualifying on Saturday morning.
“I get one run and that’s it,” she said. “We missed the official testing so we’ve been a little bit behind, so of course it’s a shame what happened to Jenson. But we’ll just try to sort a few things out in time for qualifying. I have to say, I expected the track to be extreme but this really is.”
The learning curve is huge, especially for those with less off-roading experience. But Button said everyone is in it together and help and advice across teams is plentiful — at least at this early stage.
“Most teams are very open, drivers especially, so that’s pretty cool,” he said. “But we’re already doing it on a stopwatch, comparing the times between one another and there’s like 30 seconds’ difference between some. It’s massive and it’s because some are hammering it and others are taking it a little bit easier to get in the groove.”
Qualifying tomorrow is likely to be an eye-opener, therefore — in more ways than one.
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