Jenson Button was asked in Montreal about progress towards a new McLaren deal, given that his current contract expires at the end of this season.
“No,” he replied. “No more progress at all. But that’s just the way it is… we both want to work together in the future, but it’s just not time yet.”
Button’s F1 career
Teams: Williams, Benetton, Renault, BAR, Honda, Brawn, McLaren
Championships: 1 (2009)
Pole positions: 8
Fastest laps: 8
He’s driving well this year and clearly wants to continue, but there’s no question he’s closer to the end of his F1 career than to the beginning. A driver’s options begin to narrow as that career clock ticks down; as a big money earner he becomes less attractive to rival big teams that could keep him at that retainer.
More and more, his competitive prospects begin to narrow more surely upon staying with the team he’s at; which in turn hurts his negotiating position. Yes, he’s a multiple Grand Prix winner and an ex-World Champion and that counts for a lot in terms of easing dollars out of commercial partners – and future engine supplier Honda still holds him in very high regard. But, regardless of how well he’s driving, how much his experience is helping, his currency begins to fade simply because of how long he’s been around.
So, let’s assume McLaren is not going to be able to recruit Fernando Alonso and is retaining Kevin Magnussen into his sophomore season. Button’s then got the drive cornered, surely?
Except… there are two red-hot, fully experienced and cheap Grand Prix drivers ready to win as soon as they are plugged into a fast car. They are each probably nearer the start of their F1 careers than the end, but have now amassed the necessary experience to step into a top-line drive. They have each shown fantastic potential – and will be available for a fraction of Button’s current multiple-million-dollar salary. Their names are Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean.
Hulkenberg was infamously passed over by Martin Whitmarsh-era McLaren and Ferrari when he seemed the logical choice for both. He’s led races for Williams, Force India and Sauber. Just think what he might do if McLaren was able to provide him with a truly quick car.
Grosjean in the second half of last year proved to be the only guy capable of frightening Sebastian Vettel – in a Lotus that was good, but definitely no Red Bull. The silly incidents stopped after Monaco and what was left was the great driver he’d always looked capable of being. This year he’s had the mediocre Lotus E22 in places it shouldn’t have been – fifth on the grid and running ahead of both Ferraris in Barcelona until its ERS malfunctioned, for example. He’s managed by Eric Boullier, McLaren’s racing director.
Button’s task even of staying put may not necessarily be straightforward. But this situation also reflects on the declining competitive circumstances of McLaren. This was a team that used to run Lewis Hamilton alongside Fernando Alonso, or Ayrton Senna alongside Alain Prost.
Imagine if it still had Adrian Newey, Alonso and Hamilton. Would any other team win a race? But every one of them – and several more besides – felt compelled to leave.