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Tributes pour in as Jenson Button suffers tragic loss of father

"We've done it, Dad - what we've all worked for!" Jenson Button told his father John in Brazil after fulfilling his dream of winning the drivers' title.

It was a magical moment for the British driver and his charismatic and hugely popular father John, who was an ever-present support and jovial presence on the Formula One scene.

Jenson has said he has been left "devastated" by the sudden and tragic loss of his father, who has died of a suspected heart attack aged 70.

The driver now faces the extremely tough prospect of preparing for the next F1 season without his biggest fan for the first time, something he dreads to even think about.

Affectionately known as “the old boy”, or “Papa Smurf” to the Formula One paddock, John Button was always at Jenson’s side and became a huge favourite to fellow drivers, fans and officials all around the world.

From Jenson's early days karting in Frome, Somerset, to his 2009 championship triumph at Interlagos, John was there with his big smile and supportive remarks.

He followed his son's progress through the lower formulas to his debut with Williams in 2000 and before that even enjoyed his own successful career in rallycross in the 1970s.

In a statement, Button’s management said: “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.”

Button said that his father enabled him to “discover the thrill of winning”, and that his Brazil triumph was the “fulfilment of a dream that started more than 20 years ago when the old boy gave me my first kart”.

“I had the biggest hug with the old boy. We were locked in a clinch. I didn’t let go because I was talking to him, talking about what we’ve all been through.”

Button’s McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh led the tributes from the paddock, saying: “In my long Formula One 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 One world champion that he is, 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.”

Kevin Magnussen, the rookie driver who will partner Button at McLaren for 2014, said: “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.”

Fellow Briton Max Chilton, who drives for Marussia, said: “So sad and shocked to hear the sad passing of John Button. One of the greatest characters in the paddock and will miss him dearly.”

Fernando Alonso, a double world champion, said that he was “a great man, a friend” and that “we will miss him”.

Lewis Hamilton, who was team-mates with Button at McLaren for three seasons, wrote on Twitter: “Deeply saddened by the passing of John Button. I’m so sorry Jenson Button, John was such a great man and will be missed by so many. God bless”.

Renowned for supporting all of the drivers on the F1 grid, not just his own son, John was always at trackside as a warm and comforting presence.

Jenson is far from alone in feeling great sadness at the sudden loss of a wonderful man.