MONACO (Reuters) - It took Jenson Button five corners of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit on Thursday before he started to chuckle.
The 2009 world champion had not driven a Formula One car for seven months and was accelerating around one of the trickiest of tracks in a McLaren that was wider and faster than the one he last raced.
“I had a little giggle to myself as I headed into Mirabeau,” said the Briton after ending the first day of practice around the twisting, metal-fenced harbourside streets with the 12th fastest time.
“It’s a lovely experience for me to drive these cars. Have I missed it? I haven’t missed it, no. But when you jump in the car you definitely enjoy the moments that you have,” he said.
“I definitely stepped away at the right time and I haven’t missed driving a Formula One car. But today I really enjoyed it, more than I have for a couple of years to be fair,” said the 37-year-old.
Former champions McLaren have not won a race since Button’s last victory, in Brazil in 2012, and are the only team yet to score a point this season.
But there are signs that the engine problems that have tormented them, and led to Button’s one-off return when Fernando Alonso decided to race in the Indianapolis 500 this weekend instead of Monaco, are being addressed.
Double world champion Alonso qualified seventh in Spain two weeks ago and the slowest of tracks could be McLaren’s best opportunity yet.
“I think you’ve always got to think points are possible if you can finish the race,” said Button, who confessed to feeling like a rookie at times on Thursday rather than the most experienced driver in the pit lane.
The 2017 cars are several seconds a lap quicker this year, with fatter tyres and revised aerodynamics allowing drivers to take some corners flat out.
“You can brake a lot later. The problem for me is that I don’t have the confidence yet,” said Button, who left the sport at the end of last season after 17 years of grand prix racing.
“I arrive at the corners and I still think of the last seven years. That for me is the biggest difficulty,” he said.
”It’s mad driving around here in these cars. Tabac is unbelievably quick and you are arriving at the second part of the Swimming Pool super fast and it’s very enjoyable. A lot more than the last few years.
“I‘m enjoying it very much, probably more than I thought I would actually.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin; editing by Mark Heinrich