‘Endurance Racing Is Where It’s At’
The F1 World Champion Looks to Parlay His Motul Petit Le Mans Ride into a Fulltime Sports Car Gig in 2024 and Beyond
Earlier this year – when they were in the midst of the NASCAR Garage 56 project that successfully showcased a NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro on a global stage at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – Mike Rockenfeller asked his teammate if he would be interested in joining JDC-Miller MotorSports for the 26th annual Motul Petit Le Mans. Button, 43, didn’t need time to ponder the invitation. He promptly said yes.
“The question should be why would you not do this?” Button said. “I’m a racing driver. I could sit on the couch and do nothing, but why would I want to do that? I have to race.”
The 2009 Formula One world champion will be accomplishing three firsts in his acclaimed, 26-year career: Racing a Porsche prototype, racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and racing at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
“IMSA is something I’ve watched for years,” Button said. “I love endurance racing. I love the teamwork that goes into it, and how drivers have to work together rather than being rivals within the team. The racing is just awesome.”
So awesome, in fact, that Button is seeking to parlay next month’s run at Petit with JDC-Miller into a more permanent gig in the realm of endurance racing for 2024 and possibly 2025. Most likely that would involve a full-time ride in the FIA World Endurance Championship, he said, with a side hustle in IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup races.
“There are a few very good options,” Button said.
But for now, the immediate task is Petit Le Mans. He’ll join Rockenfeller and Tijmen van der Helm in the No. 5 JDC-Miller Porsche 963 for the team’s sixth race as the first customer team in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class this season. The 10-hour race is the fourth endurance race of 2023 and season finale for both the WeatherTech Championship and Michelin Endurance Cup.
It’s both a step into and a step out of Button’s areas of expertise. He spent almost two decades racing and winning in high-downforce cars – and is returning to it for the first time in four years – but he doesn’t have much experience with multiclass racing or co-driving with teammates.
“Endurance is the place I want to be,” Button said. “Multiclass racing throws something else into the mix with traffic. There’s always a lot more action because of it. The way IMSA is run, you don’t know who is going to win until after the last safety car, basically. Endurance racing is where it’s at.”
So, too, is IMSA and its five classes and too-close-to-call championship battles. Button marvels at joining the GTP class, in which three manufacturers – Porsche, Acura and Cadillac – are within five points of one another for the championship heading into the final race.
While JDC-Miller didn’t get its customer Porsche up and running until May and therefore isn’t a part of the championship drama, Button says he won’t alter his approach to the race.
“It’s dangerous to not give it your all,” he said. “You’re not going to let people past. We are here to race and we’re here to compete. It’s a championship but it’s also a standalone race. You want to do the best you can. No quarters given, definitely not. As soon as you start taking it a bit easier on the guys fighting for a championship, it actually makes it worse.”
Since departing F1 after 18 seasons in 2017, Button’s racing career has been diverse and adventurous. He’s raced in Super GT, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, WEC, Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM), British GT, Extreme E, Nitro Rallycross and, earlier this year, three NASCAR Cup Series races and the NASCAR-backed Garage 56 entry at Le Mans with Rockenfeller and Jimmie Johnson.
A test of the JDC-Miller Porsche last week at Michelin Raceway marked the first time Button had driven a high-downforce car since 2019.
“The first 10 laps were a bit of a shock to the system,” Button admitted. “Getting used to downforce cars again and a circuit that is fast, flowing, blind and unforgiving was interesting. But to be fair, I loved it. Absolutely loved the challenge. I feel at home driving high-downforce cars. It’s in my makeup. It’s what I’ve done for two decades.”
He joins a select group of stars from other racing series participating in Motul Petit Le Mans on Oct. 14. Reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden will join the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsport GTP entry with co-drivers Felipe Nasr and Matt Campbell.
Newgarden’s IndyCar teammate, Scott McLaughlin, will return to Tower Motosports to try to add to their Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class victory in March at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Six-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves – who have been frequent competitors in IMSA endurance races the past several years – also are expected to be on the grid again at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
“It’s nice to see drivers from different categories jumping in and being competitive,” Button said. “It’s lovely that we’ve got drivers from all over the world wanting to try their hand at endurance racing.”
For Button, though, the question of why always becomes the question of why not. He talks of drivers in his age range who continue to race successfully at high levels. He mentions multi-time World Champion Fernando Alonso, still competitive in F1 at 42. Above all, Button says, the desire is about competition.
“It never leaves you as a racing driver, that want for competition,” Button said. “As long as I still want to race and am still healthy and fit and my reactions are still there, there’s no reason to stop racing. When I get to a point where I’ve lost my edge, I won’t be doing so much serious racing. But for now, wow! I feel like I’ve got a lot of years ahead. I still feel like a 20-year-old when it comes to racing.
“I will race as long as I can.”