Formula 1 driver Jenson Button’s father has died of a suspected heart attack at the age of 70.
John Button, who has been a strong guiding force behind his son’s career which includes winning the 2009 world championship, was found dead in his home on the French Riviera by a friend yesterday.
A statement released by the driver’s agent read: “It is with great sadness and regret that I can confirm John Button passed away at his home in the South of France on Sunday. Whilst we await confirmation, initial signs would indicate a suspected heart attack. A close friend who was visiting John on Sunday was the first to discover the tragic news.
“John’s children Jenson, Natasha, Samantha and Tanya and the rest of the family are clearly devastated and ask for their privacy to be respected during this extremely difficult time.”
John Button, who used to drive rallycross, became a familiar face on the F1 circuit as he proudly cheered his son on to success.
When Mr Button split from his wife Simone, Jenson moved in with his father but the links with his mother and older sisters, Natasha, Samantha and Tanya, were maintained.
As an eight-year-old schoolboy who drove to victory in his first race, freckle-faced Jenson had already told his father he wanted to be a F1 world champion one day.
With his father’s backing, this dream went on to become a reality, earning him the nickname the Frome Flyer and soon becoming the pride of Somerset, with an army of Westcountry fans.
The family were not flush with money. Mr Button once had to borrow enough money to buy fuel for the drive home from a kart race in Scotland.
Mr Button coached his son and helped pay for his racing from a kart engine preparation business.
Anthony Hamilton, whose son Lewis would become the 2008 world champion, was among his customers.
A "very sad" McLaren Mercedes team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: "In my long Formula 1 career, I've encountered many drivers' fathers, but I think it's safe to say that John was perhaps more devoted to his son than any of them.
“Ever since Jenson was a boy, racing go-karts, his dad has been at his side, helping him, supporting him, finding the money for the next race.
“As Jenson grew older, and continued to win in cars, still John was always there, his most steadfast helper and supporter.
“And, even now, in recent years, during which Jenson has become the consummate Formula 1 world champion that he is, the most experienced driver on the Formula 1 grid in fact, still John has been ever-present, as loyal and as loving as ever, a benign and popular member of Jenson’s small and intimate entourage.
“This coming season will be Jenson’s fifth as a McLaren driver. I believe John has attended every grand prix over the past four seasons, and over that period he’s become a unique and, I think it’s fair to say, irreplaceable part of the McLaren ‘family’.
“He was not only a great dad, but also a lovely man, and he’ll be enormously missed by Jenson, of course, by all at McLaren, and indeed by the Formula 1 community at large.
“I’m sure that everyone at McLaren, and indeed everyone in Formula 1, will join me in sending our heartfelt condolences to Jenson, to the Button family, and to their many friends."
Tributes to Mr Button flooded in from around the paddock.
Fernando Alonso tweeted: “My condolences to all the Button family, especially to Jenson. Very sad news. John....a great man, a friend, we will miss him.”
Jenson’s team mate Kevin Magnussen wrote on Twitter: “I’m very very sorry for my team-mate, Jenson Button. His dad was a really great guy who will be missed by all in F1. John Button RIP”
A Twitter message from MercedesAMGF1, accompanied by joyous pictures of Mr Button hugging his son, said: “We’re devastated to hear the tragic news about ’Papa Smurf’. Our hearts go out to Jenson Button, his family & friends
“We have so many memories of John’s love of life from his years with the team in Brackley. He will be greatly missed.”
The Sahara Force India team tweeted: “We’re really sorry to hear of the passing of John Button. Our thoughts are with Jenson and all of John’s family and friends in this moment.”
Broadcaster and former racing driver Martin Brundle tweeted: “So sad to hear John Button has died at 70. What a great character and lovely man. All of F1 will miss him. Condolences to Jenson and family.”
Driver Jules Bianchi tweeted: “RIP John Button. So sad to hear that. All my thoughts to Jenson Button and his familly.”
Engineer Paddy Lowe tweeted: “ Very sad and shocked to hear about the death of John Button. A great character but above all a very kind man. F1 will badly miss John Button.”