When people think of Jenson Button, they picture the 2009 Formula One World Driver’s Champion who prided himself in an exceptionally smooth driving style across paved circuits. Since his retirement from formula racing, however, he has been getting his hands dirty in another discipline.
In recent years, Button has participated in off-road competition with increasing frequency, following in the footsteps of his late father John who competed in rallycross in the 1970s. Jenson himself is set to do the same as he announced Tuesday that he will contest the 2022/23 Nitro Rallycross Championship for XITE Energy Racing, serving as a team-mate to Oliver Bennett.
Button is no stranger to driving a rallycross car, having tested a JRM Racing World Rallycross car at Lydden Hill in 2015 alongside David Coulthard for a BBC feature, followed by an Olsbergs MSE Honda at Sebring in 2017. The latter run, coupled with his departure from F1, led to the possibility of him competing in Red Bull Global Rallycross though it never came to fruition.
F1 and rallycross might be worlds apart as a pavement open-wheel discipline versus mixed-surface closed-wheel cars, though crossover is not too uncommon. Scott Speed, the 2021 Nitro RX runner-up to Travis Pastrana, competed alongside Button in F1 in 2006 and much of 2007 before being replaced by future four-time WDC Sebastian Vettel, who incidentally has an invitation from Pastrana to race in NRX if willing and able. NRX’s spiritual predecessors GRC and Americas Rallycross saw the likes of Nelson Piquet Jr. and 1997 WDC Jacques Villeneuve, while both drivers, Gianni Morbidelli, Markus Winkelhock, and Alexander Wurz have competed in FIA World RX.
“Rallycross is night and day different to Formula One and that’s why I love it,” Button stated after joining XITE. “I left F1 after seventeen years because I wanted to try something new. I’m all about new challenges. I’m a racing driver, not a Formula One driver, so new challenges are what I’m all about. I felt I achieved what I needed to in Formula One so it’s nice to try different things.”
Although Nitro RX will be his first time racing in rallycross on a competitive level, the entry is only another addition to his growing résumé in off-road racing. In 2019, he began driving Spec Trophy Trucks when he entered the Best in the Desert‘s Mint 400 and Vegas to Reno, finishing nineteenth in the former’s 6100 class and retiring from the latter after hitting a rock. Both starts were to prepare him for his biggest desert test later that year in SCORE International‘s legendary Baja 1000, though he bowed out after 235 miles with a broken differential. His return to BITD in 2020 saw a nineteenth-place finish in the Parker 425.
In 2021, he joined the nascent Extreme E series as an owner/driver of JBXE. He ran the inaugural event in Saudi Arabia and finished sixth with Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky as his team-mate before stepping aside to install Kevin Hansen. Hansen and Molly Taylor comprise JBXE’s driver lineup for 2022.
Earlier in the year, Button drove a Can-Am UTV at Glen Helen Raceway with Bennett accompanying him. The test was overseen by husband/wife duo Jason and Corry Weller, whose UTV operation is one of the best in short course off-road racing and founded Great American Shortcourse‘s SR1 UTV class.
“As well as the circuit experience he brings, one of the things you notice immediately is the level of professionalism,” Bennett, who owns XITE Energy, said Button. “You don’t become a Formula One World Champion without knowing how to get the best out of the car, the engineers, the team and everybody around you. I feel, as an organisation, we’ve already benefitted hugely from having him with us.”
Could other off-road endeavours be in Button’s future? Nobody knows, though his interest in the Dakar Rally was piqued at the height of his F1 career in 2010, so never say never, right?