Speed racer

F1's Jenson Button revs his mojo on the Riviera

Though he lives in Monaco and, when in Los Angeles, parties at the Mondrian and the Playboy mansion, Honda’s Formula 1 lead driver Jenson Button shies away from the suggestion that he embodies the fast, international lifestyle of the Cote d’Azur. He laughs off the term “playboy.”

But it’s true: He was seen at last year’s Grand Prix with “Scream’s” Rose MacGowen and at this year’s Elle Style Awards in London with British actress Sara Cox, and he frequents La Cave du Roi, a disco in Monaco’s Byblos Hotel, often with former fiancee, actress Louise Griffiths. With his good looks — think Paul Bettany’s darker, rugged younger brother — and deering-do, the 26-year-old eligible bachelor is about as close as you can get to a modern-day French Riviera playboy without actually spending the afternoon sipping Campari and Sodas at Monaco’s Quai des Artistes. Which he, of course, probably does when he’s at home in the principality.

“Formula 1 is a very glamorous sport, there is no getting away from that; and Monaco is the same — it’s a very glamorous place,” Button admits. “It’s perfect for a driver because it’s central to Europe, it’s very safe and very clean. That’s the main reason why a lot of us live there. You have the coast, and an hour away you’re at a ski resort. You’ve got Cannes down the road, which has some great restaurants. Plus St. Tropez is only 2½ hours away.”

Last season, while his team was disqualified from the Monaco GP for a technical issue, Button spent most of his time at the Cannes Festival — which didn’t do much to beunk his playboy image. “We went to a couple of parties. We went to the Dolce and Gabbana party, we went to Naomi Campbell’s party. I’ve experienced (the life) from that side of things as well, which is great. I would have rather been racing, of course, but I was down there enjoying myself.”

Button’s lifelong passion for motor sports was almost preordained from birth. His father, John Button, was a British Rallycross driver in the 1970s, and Button fils first started driving souped-up go-karts at 8 years old in his hometown of Frome, Somerset, in southwest England. He’s since endured six F1 seasons, but never won a race — though all that’s probably about to change now that Honda is putting more money into chassis and engine development. Button just won his first pole at the Melbourne race in early April and is poised to give the Renault’s Alonso a run this season.

“That’s the aim,” he says. “This is the best car I have had in my Formula career.”

With 18 races in exotic locals straight out of a Paul Bowles novel (Bahrain, Malaysia, San Marino), Formula 1 is one of the world’s largest spectator sports, drawing millions of fans — from the rich who dock their yachts in the harbor in Monaco to the poor who fill the stands at the race in Brazil. And it is the young, good-looking drivers like Button, Spanish World Champion Fernando Alonso and Finnish Kimi Raikkonen that keeps, to use an industry term, “the asses in the seats.” That and the glitz and danger of it all.

What is it about the sport that ignites him?

“The start is such a buzz. You have the adrenaline pumping through your veins, you’ve got 22 cars all doing over 200 mph and then breaking for the first corner, all the engine noise and vibrations, and the sound and the smells … yeah, that’s home for me.”

That and, perhaps, a poolside cocktail at the Hotel Martinez at sunset.

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