Jenson Button was among Dan Wheldon's biggest rivals when the pair started out on the long road to glory in the new cadet karting class in the late 1980s, and was the first to pay tribute to his fallen friend at the memorial kart race held in his honour on Monday evening (5 December).
Button joined couple of Wheldon's other former junior rivals, Anthony Davidson and Marino Franchitti, as well as the Scot's older brother, Dario, among a host of stars gathered at the Daytona Milton Keynes circuit to pay tribute and raise funds in the double Indy 500 winner's memory, and admitted that he would never have passed up a chance to compete with the Englishman.
"We grew up together and had so many great experiences together, it's an era of drivers that have gone on to achieve a lot," the McLaren driver reflected in an interview with Sportinglife.com
, "He was a fun guy, he loved his racing, he worked hard but he also played hard, that's the way you've got to go through life if you have that possibility. The early days were great, but Formula Ford was also very special - the first year of kart racing together and we had a lot of good fights that season. Most of the time you couldn't beat him so, when you did, it really did mean a lot. He's the guy you'd get out of bed to race."
Despite achieving his own aim of winning the F1 world championship in 2009, Button was quick to acknowledge his friend's achievement of winning twice at Indianapolis, as well as taking the IRL title in 2005.
"The competition there is fierce and to come in and win the Indy 500 like he did, and the championship, and also to win the Indy 500 this year, first race in 2011, it's phenomenal - you don't see that very often," he remarked.
Franchitti Sr knows just what it was like to compete with Wheldon, having raced against a opponent who became a close friend for many years, and was joined by more who could only marvel at the Englishman's achievements for the special two-hour endurance race in Milton Keynes.
"It's absolutely freezing, but it's a great turnout tonight - it's great to see so many racing drivers from different formulas around the world," Button noted, "Dario's here as well, who was one of Dan's closest friends and closest rivals, so it's a great turnout. I'm very happy to be here, it's great to be a part of it."
Wheldon died from injuries suffered in a crash at the Indycar finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October, and was awarded a posthumous lifetime achievement honour at the Autosport
Awards ceremony on Sunday evening. The man behind the Milton Keynes tribute race, sportscar racer Johnny Mowlem, chose the venue, located just ten minutes away from Wheldon's hometown of Emberton, because of its ability to accommodate the high number of friends and fund-raisers all wanting to give the 'local boy' the best possible 'send-off', and the circuit was stretched to its maximum grid size with 36 teams of four taking part.
Each team was headed up by a professional driver representing every echelon of motorsport - encompassing F1, F2, F3, Le Mans, ALMS, BTCC, GP2, GT, World Touring Cars, sportscar and IndyCar – while members of the public paid for the right to race with their heroes and helped to raise more than £17,000 for the Wheldon family's chosen charity, the Alzheimer's Society.
“The overwhelming response for Dan's memorial kart race was truly moving; it has been a fantastic evening," Mowlem admitted, "The event sold out within just a few hours and the management and staff at Daytona Milton Keynes have done a brilliant job to accommodate such a huge gathering – I can't thank them enough for their support.”
The event concluded with Wheldon's father Clive thanking all those taking part, before hinting at plans to make the race an annual fixture on future motorsport calendars.