Driving Jenson Button

A World Champion gets his first Healey ride.

A dark sky, rain threatening; early Sunday morning 18 June, 2000, at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, site of the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Canada.

“Follow the course marshal’s instructions and DON’T SCREW UP! We’ll be in front of tens of thousands of people and TV cameras.” Roger Hamel shouted his urgent admonition in French and English to twenty-four Austin-Healey gentlemen waiting in nervous anticipation for the word to start our engines.

As the chauffeurs for the Parade des Pilotes (Drivers Parade) before the Formula One race, we were parked off-track in an approximation of the starting grid positions for the race, at the north end of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, just beyond the hairpin turn. We’d been warned to stay near our cars; I stayed behind the wheel of my BJ7 and mouthed a silent prayer: “Car, don’t fail me now…”

In 1957, the lineup of the new Austin-Healey 100/6 model during the F1 British Grand Prix Drivers’ Parade at Aintree. The lead car is driven by Derrick Ross and carries racer Ivor Bueb, a Maserati driver.

Tradition of the Parade des Pilotes
For decades at F1 races it has been the tradition to present a Drivers Parade prior to the race. (Being a parade car is nothing new for the Austin-Healey. In July 1957, the Donald Healey Motor Company arranged to have the new model Austin-Healey 100/6 as the parade cars at the F1 race at Aintree in England.) With a keen eye for promotion of the Austin-Healey, Roger Hamel, president of the Quebec Chapter of the Austin-Healey Club of America, arranged with the race organizers to let Healeys serve as the cars for the Canadian Parade des Pilotes.

When Roger invited me to participate in the parade, my wife, Margo, and I quickly agreed to drive our BJ7 the 1,300 miles round trip to Montreal to be part of this exhilarating event. Before we left, I had spoken to Margo’s nephew in England, who advised me to keep an eye out for a new British driver, Jenson Button, a 20-year-old hot shoe driving for the renowned BMW Williams F1 Team.

Selecting the drivers

Front to back: David Coulthard is driven by Olivier Hamel (in his mother Lise’s Healey); Alexander Wurz driven by David Mosher; Jenson Button in the author’s red BJ7.

Early in the morning of the race, excitement grew as the Healey chauffeurs picked their F1 drivers’ names by lottery. The draw got down to three F1 drivers remaining: Michael Schumacher, Marc Gene, and Jenson Button. One chance in three was decent odds. Just before I drew from the hat, I thought that if I drew Schumacher, I could surely trade for Button. When I reached in and pulled out the little slip of paper and unfolded it—Jenson Button!—my shouts of triumph could be heard in the next room, where Roger thought someone had been attacked.

As police escorted us to the track, the masses of spectators walking there parted like the Red Sea to allow our line of cars to pass. Working our way into the parking area behind the track, we could hear the scream of the race cars during their final warm-up session. The noise, the huge crowds, the anticipation—I could hardly contain my excitement.

Onto the track
The marshals barked, “Vite! Vite! Hurry! Hurry!” There we were, 24 old cars tearing down the track at 70 mph in full view of TV cameras and those tens of thousands of race fans pouring into their seats. No time for a screw-up.

A young Jenson Button is in the Healey heading out of th epaddock onto the track. The inscription reads: “Baird, Thanks for the lift! JB 2000.”

The shiny Austin-Healey parade cars (incredibly, our BJ7 was the only red one) were directed into the paddock area, where we should not have been but were sent due to critical schedule requirements. We were stopped right in front of the garages: mass confusion, people everywhere, mechanics and marshals and the motley crowd of VIPs. Through the mob, the drivers made their way to our cars, each searching for his name on a Healey windscreen. Jenson, ready to go in his driver’s suit, materialized and carefully and politely got in the front seat.

“I think you’re supposed to sit on the rear deck,” I suggested, which he did. Immediately, the Healey was surrounded by TV cameras, photographers, media reporters—just as Roger had warned us. In a flash—literally hundreds from the cameras—we were off onto the track, each of us following the car in front as well as we could.

This one lap around the 2.74 mile Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was the most thrilling drive of my life—in an Austin-Healey or any car. The crowds were cheering, the course marshals waving, and what seemed to be millions of camera flashes were going off like fireworks all around the course. When possible, I conversed with Jenson. I thought, “What a very polite, courteous and pleasant young man!”

Margo Foster helps with final detailing before leaving for the race track early on race day.

All too soon, our lap completed, we were back at the paddock; Jenson politely asked if he could jump from the now-stopped Healey. In a split second, he was off. I shouted “Godspeed!” to him as he left, and the dream over, our parade cars were hustled from the paddock back out the main straight (headed the wrong way) toward our assigned parking area behind the grandstands at the north end of the track.

Overcome with excitement, I could do nothing but sit in my car and reflect upon what had just happened. I mentally thanked my BJ7 and all those mechanics who had helped me restore and maintain it, and appreciated the fact that my patient wife enjoyed the car with me. It was a few minutes of pure Healey joy!

Epilogue:
Since 2000, I’ve seen over a decade of thrills and disappointments in countless viewings of Formula One races—live and televised. I recall Button’s first win at the very rainy 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix in his 113th start, nearly a record for races run without a win. As an avid fan of his, I’ve watched him make do with some not-so-great cars and finally succeed with the Brawn Mercedes, in which he won his first title: 2009 F1 World Champion. And to think—I gave him his first Healey ride!

Parading the reigning World Champion in 2010.

When I knew that I would again have the privilege of driving Jenson Button in the 2010 F1 Grand Prix Drivers Parade at Montreal, I contacted his personal assistant requesting that she ask Jenson to sign several items to donate to an upcoming charity auction.

At this race, Jenson and his McLaren teammate, Lewis Hamilton, were at the front of the starting grid and had to walk down the line of Austin-Healeys to find their cars. When Jenson spotted me, he immediately sat in the driver’s seat and took the wheel as if to drive. With a wry grin followed by a warm smile, he got out, reached over to me, shook my hand and said, “How are you doing, Baird?” Here was the reigning World Champion climbing into my Austin-Healey for his tour around the track…life doesn’t get much better!

To top the day off properly, Jenson finished second, just behind his teammate for a McLaren 1-2 result.

By Baird Foster



'Driving Jenson Button' has 1 comment

  1. December 20, 2016 @ 1:30 pm Sam Foster

    My grand pop was the best in the entire world. I loved him so much.

    Love, Sam Foster

    Reply


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