Jenson Button is no stranger to race cars. After nearly two decades racing with various Formula 1 teams with a drivers' championship to his name, the popular Brit made his endurance racing debut last year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He reached another career milestone this past weekend by finishing third in the 2024 Rolex 24 at Daytona, operating a wildly complex hybrid prototype—specifically, the IMSA GTP Acura ARX-06 fielded by WTR Racing with Andretti.
"It's actually more complicated than an F1 car," Button told The Drive at Daytona. "There are so many buttons and functions on the steering wheel and all the different systems—it's really quite challenging."
Button isn't wrong. While visually similar to an F1 unit, the steering wheel of a hybrid endurance racer has even more buttons, levers, and knobs, making it more difficult to learn and operate—especially at speed (and at night, and with traffic all around you).
In terms of performance, the ARX-06 is much closer to an F1 car than the modified NASCAR Camaro that Button drove at Le Mans. Still, the hybrid prototype boasts some key differences from an open-wheel racer which are likely the culprit behind Button's remark. These include an even more aggressive aero kit, brake-by-wire tech, and perhaps more importantly, an extremely complex traction control system.
David Salters, president of HRC US and former head of engine development for Ferrari and Mercedes in Formula 1, explained to The Drive that while F1 cars are still the pinnacle of engineering, his Acura prototypes aren't far behind in terms of complexity.
"We have traction control and brake by wire, which is pretty sophisticated, so you could argue controlling that is very complicated [for the driver]," said Salters. "The traction control system is also self-aware and the code for that is written in-house.
"This system is constantly trying to learn traction—not just for the rear axle but also laterally while managing oversteer and all that stuff. So while we run the same brain [ECU] as they do in F1, all those bits are different from F1. That could be what Jenson [Button] is talking about."
Acura ARX has won the last three Rolex 24s (ARX-05 in 2021, 2022, and ARX-06 in 2023), but following a BoP adjustment that mandated additional weight and other performance-affecting adjustments ahead of the race, it simply couldn't take the fight to the hard-charging GTP Cadillacs and Porsches. Button, along with endurance veteran Jordan Taylor, IndyCar star Colton Herta, and youngster Louis Deletraz secured third place with a fastest lap time of 1:35.971—roughly four-tenths off the Cadillac's time, and three-tenths off the winning Porsche 963.
Wayne Taylor, owner of Wayne Taylor Racing with Andretti, isn't new to working with F1 world champions in IMSA. In 2019, he fielded a car for Fernando Alonso, who ultimately won the famed endurance race. However, he explained that there's a lot for any new driver to learn when jumping into one of these prototypes, and how the driver's age may play a role in how quickly they get acclimated to the car.
"These cars are very complicated for the drivers," Taylor told The Drive at Daytona. "You know, some of them are driving the cars and they even say, 'We don't know how to use all the tools yet!' There's a 32-page manual on how to use the steering wheel and some of the other controls.
"I think it is [harder] for someone like Jenson because the kids of today are always on simulators and computers and all these high-tech hybrids and stuff. And you watch them racing on the internet all day. But Jenson has done an outstanding job."
The crew of the No. 40 Acura had to settle for a podium, but ultimately for the 44-year-old Brit, it represented an invaluable learning experience as he heads into a full racing season with Team Jota in the World Endurance Championship. I'm sure they all would've liked to add a Rolex Daytona Cosmograph to their collections, but luckily for Button, he's already a Rolex ambassador, so he already has one (or two).
As the former F1 champ with Brawn GP realizes now, the level of talent in IMSA sports car racing is staggering. With drivers from IndyCar, NASCAR, F1, WEC, and a fair share of upcoming stars hungry to prove themselves, an F1 champ isn't guaranteed a lesser challenge in the American series.
"When you become an F1 driver, you're the best of the best. You're most likely a multiple champion by the time you even reach F1. But at the end of the day, IMSA is a different type of racing," Salters told The Drive. "You've got traffic management, there's the endurance side of it, and you need to learn that. While the crossover of F1 drivers [to IMSA] is amazing, the [talent] level of the sports car drivers really is the best of the best here."
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