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What F1 champion Button can expect on his IMSA debut

OPINION: While the battle for the first title of IMSA’s hybrid era is finely poised heading into the 2023 Petit Le Mans finale, plenty of eyes will be on JDC-Miller Motorsport’s customer Porsche 963 and a certain Formula 1 world champion making his series debut. Here’s what Jenson Button can expect

#5 JDC Miller MotorSports, Porsche 963, GTP: Tijmen van der Helm, Mike Rockenfeller

#5 JDC Miller MotorSports, Porsche 963, GTP: Tijmen van der Helm, Mike Rockenfeller

Art Fleischmann

Jenson Button has sampled an eclectic mix of racing series in the past few years since his last full-time racing programme in Super GT concluded in 2019.

Now 43, the 2009 Formula 1 world champion had a disappointing British GT cameo at Silverstone in 2020 as hidden glitches dogged his McLaren 720S GT3. He then made a one-off appearance for his own JBXE team in the inaugural round of the all-electric Extreme E series in 2021, continued the off-road theme by entering two Nitro RallyCross rounds in 2022 and has made three road course appearances in this year’s NASCAR Cup Series alongside a return to the Le Mans 24 Hours in a modified Chevrolet Camaro Cup car.

Having stood his ground against the good ol’ boys in NASCAR, setting the sixth fastest lap on his most recent outing at Indianapolis amid what he called a “messy” race, Button isn’t afraid of throwing himself into a challenge. And he'll be embarking on his latest one this weekend by jumping in for the final round of the IMSA SportsCar Championship at Road Atlanta, the 10-hour Petit Le Mans, for his debut in the North American series.

Button isn’t a newcomer to prototype sportcar racing by any means, having contested four races in the 2019 World Endurance Championship with SMP Racing’s BR Engineering BR1 LMP1 machine, including that year’s Le Mans. But the JDC-Miller Porsche 963 he’ll share with Mike Rockenfeller and Tijmen van der Helm is an altogether different beast, which Button admitted in a recent interview with the IMSA series website had been “a bit of a shock to the system” in his first 10 laps of testing at the fast, flowing Road Atlanta circuit.

“Getting used to downforce cars again and a circuit that is fast, flowing, blind and unforgiving was interesting,” he remarked. “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.”

Button showed he was adept at learning high downforce sportscars by winning the Super GT title at the end of his first full season in 2018 with Naoki Yamamoto. And racing with hybrid technology will be familiar too, with Button’s final three full seasons in F1 and last hurrah at Monaco in 2017 coming during the V6 turbo era when he played a key role in aiding Honda through its traumatic return.

Button has previous prototype experience from his days in LMP1, but the hybrid 963 is a heavier car and uses tyres that start from cold

Button has previous prototype experience from his days in LMP1, but the hybrid 963 is a heavier car and uses tyres that start from cold

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

But as current IMSA championship leader Pipo Derani points out, even for drivers who have been in the car all year “the amount of tools that you have is sometimes overwhelming”. Quickly getting to grips with managing these during his stints at the wheel will be important for Button to optimise his performance.

“You can make so many changes that can either help or take you in a completely opposite direction, especially when you are trying to deal with all the changes in the middle of traffic, slower categories,” reasons Action Express Cadillac driver Derani.

Therefore, Button can’t expect that his F1 experience will allow him to waltz in and be the cream of the crop straight away. IMSA regulars polled by Autosport suggest that Button’s biggest challenges to get his head around lie broadly within two camps: traffic and tyres.

More: The winner takes all contenders for IMSA's first hybrid crown

With the LMP2, LMP3, GTD Pro and GTD classes all joining the top GTP cars on the track in a capacity 54-car field, Penske Porsche driver Nick Tandy says Road Atlanta will be comparable to NASCAR short tracks Martinsville and Bristol in terms of the density of cars per kilometre. The GTP cars will be constantly overtaking slower machinery, so as Acura driver Filipe Albuquerque puts it, “you never have two laps exactly the same”.

"You literally will never, ever get a clear lap. It’s always frustrating but it’s dealing with the frustration which I think is sometimes difficult in these situations when you’re in a fast car" Nick Tandy

This won’t be news to Button, who remarked that “IMSA is something I’ve watched for years”, but Tandy says he’ll need to be mentally prepared for how frustrating it can be.

“You literally will never, ever get a clear lap,” explains Tandy, who is five points off the summit together with Mathieu Jaminet. “It’s always frustrating but it’s dealing with the frustration which I think is sometimes difficult in these situations when you’re in a fast car.”

BMW’s Nick Yelloly echoes that “traffic is going to be a nightmare” and says Button will have his work cut out to catch up on the knowledge others have spent all year developing on how to approach overtaking slower cars depending on which of its drivers is at the wheel.

“He’s a fantastic driver, so I have no doubt he’ll be fast,” says Yelloly, who recalls fondly picking the newly crowned world champion’s brains at the 2009 Autosport Awards when the younger Briton was in Formula Renault.

Constant traffic will be crucial for Button to manage

Constant traffic will be crucial for Button to manage

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

“But the traffic in IMSA and the aggression that sometimes you have to have to get by these guys is quite high. Also, you learn through a season because you drive with the cars more often, you know who is in X, Y and Z car, you know how to approach a pro or a pro-am.”

Tyres are another major element that Button will have to come to terms with. As in the WEC’s Hypercar class, in which Porsche and Cadillac’s GTP cars also compete as LMDhs, IMSA utilises Michelin rubber that starts from cold without tyre warmers. In conditions where track temperatures are low, as are expected this weekend when the sun drops and the track falls under total darkness, Tandy notes that “tyre warmup is treacherous” and explains that drivers have to be on their guard.

Insight: The challenges of making Hypercar tyres without heaters

“You can quite easily either lose 10 seconds on an out-lap being too cautious or you can destroy a tyre of which we have a limited allocation in three corners,” he says, adding that it was “the biggest difference” to get used to upon his return to prototype racing for the first time since Porsche canned its 919 LMP1 project at the end of 2017.

“The hybrid system and the braking systems are integrated by regulation, it’s often quite difficult to feel what’s going on under braking when the tyre is cold. We have grip once they warm up, but it’s super sketchy when we leave the pits on a cold track.”

Having crashed on cold tyres in the warmup at Road America, and seen BMW’s Augusto Farfus shunt on the opening lap at Watkins Glen for a similar reason, Derani’s team-mate Alexander Sims warns that it is all too easy for the uninitiated to make a costly mistake.

“Going into the night as temperatures drop, I anticipate it to catch some people out honestly through pretty much no fault of their own,” he tells Autosport. “It’s just circumstantial sometimes. You come out of the pitlane and you’ve got a set of headlights behind you that just inevitably distract you and you’re not focusing 100% on the car, which is what you absolutely need at every stage on this tyre when it’s cold.”

Echoing Tandy, Sims found learning the 2023 tyres “the biggest challenge” as they “would overheat quite easily and just seemed a bit more picky with driving styles and set-up” compared to the 2022 tyre that “you could push a bit harder and it reacted well to it”.

“I just overworked the tyre too often for too many races before it really sunk home that I needed to really adapt my driving,” he admits.

Sims cautions that cold tyres are difficult to manage

Sims cautions that cold tyres are difficult to manage

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

At least in this regard, Button won’t be the only high-profile name getting to grips with the 963 in the public eye. Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden is making his first GTP start and only his second ever IMSA appearance - having finished fifth in LMP2 at Daytona in a one-off with Tower Motorsports - in the works #7 Penske entry.

But while Tandy stresses that there are plenty of question marks over its potential at Road America, Button will be racing a car which in the hands of the factory team has won each of the past two IMSA races that GTP cars have been eligible for. And as well as enjoying strong form of late, the 963 has been configured to be accessible for a team “that hasn’t been running the car to go out and potentially race the next day”, Tandy explains.

As a testament to that, JDC-Miller has already taken two fourth places in its partial campaign with the only GTP model that has been made available for customers to buy in year one, with Proton (in both IMSA and WEC) and WEC outfit Jota also taking the plunge.

“From that point of view it probably is the best car to jump straight into, obviously not knowing the other cars,” Tandy adds. “There’s been obviously lots of work to make the functions of the car for the driver and also for the team as intuitive as possible.

"Going in for a race in IMSA, I think you can pick few better circuits than Road Atlanta. The track is brilliant and the racing is always fun and exciting" Alexander Sims

“Porsche doesn’t want to supply teams with cars that take days and days of testing to go and figure out before they can race. So it’s potentially one of the better cars to jump into I guess.”

With his team not in the championship fight, Button could be forgiven for saying that he’d be feeling his way in, but has pledged that there will be "no quarters given, definitely not". Having targeted a WEC return next year, he knows that a strong showing at one of the most chaotic races on the IMSA schedule will only aid his case to demonstrate that he remains a force in sportscars.

And should he enjoy himself, why stop at the one IMSA outing? Toyota WEC aces Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Brendon Hartley have made regular outings at Petit in recent years, and there’s no reason why Button couldn’t combine a WEC gig with outings in IMSA’s longer races that form part of the Endurance Cup mini-series that also comprises the Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours and 6 Hours of Watkins Glen. His rivals are confident that Button won’t regret his decision.

Button has set his sights on getting back to a full-time racing programme in 2024 in either WEC or IMSA

Button has set his sights on getting back to a full-time racing programme in 2024 in either WEC or IMSA

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

“Going in for a race in IMSA, I think you can pick few better circuits than Road Atlanta,” says Sims. “The track is brilliant and the racing is always fun and exciting.”

Albuquerque adds: “I think he will love the race. For me, it’s one of the best races in the world.”

Button’s latest challenge in his storied motorsport career will be fiercely competitive, but his interview with the IMSA website suggests that he’s prepared to face it.

“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.”

Button will be in the thick of the action on his return to prototypes

Button will be in the thick of the action on his return to prototypes

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

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