It’s amazing how little time there ever is in F1 to enjoy the moment, to celebrate something special, before something comes along and makes it all turn nasty.
The bitterness is starting to come out now in the aftermath of Jenson Button’s shock move to McLaren on a three year contract.
According to Ross Brawn, who has actually been trying to have a holiday this week while all of this has been going on, Button breached the terms of his contract when he visited the McLaren factory last Friday mid-way through the negotiations over a new deal. At the time it is now being suggested, the deal on the table was for £8 million with a back-end deal based on performance which could have lifted his total take to £12m, just short of what Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso earn. The difference is that their salaries are more fixed, with less performance points.
After Button visited McLaren and made it public, with quotes from his manager Richard Goddard about Button wanting to be ‘”valued”, Ross Brawn made his feelings clear to Button in a phone call on Sunday. He withdrew the offer on the grounds of breach of contract, he told Bob McKenzie in the Express. “I was very disappointed at the way things finished up with Jenson,” said Brawn.
The door was not closed, but positions had been taken and Button then fixed his attentions on McLaren and concluded a deal relatively quickly, certainly in time for it to cast a shadow over Mercedes’ announcement of its takeover of Brawn on Monday. The announcement of that – via a hastily arranged conference call with German and British media on Monday morning – suggests that Brawn and Mercedes felt the Button defection was imminent and wanted to get their positive news in first.
The Button to McLaren rumours were swirling that day, taking the shine off the announcement and McLaren was able to turn its deal with Button around quickly and get it announced so that it dominated the news agenda and cast McLaren as the all British champion team against the German team without a winning driver. This fits in very well with McLaren’s repositioning of itself for the future as the “British Ferrari”.
Mercedes boss Norbert Haug has hinted optimistically that there could be surprises in the driver line up, which has got people thinking that he might mean Michael Schumacher, but Brawn has squashed that one today, “When I last spoke with Michael. I did not get the impression that he wants to make a long-term comeback,” said Brawn. Schumacher is contracted to Ferrari and it is staying that way.
All at Brawn are disappointed by what has happened here. Button visited the factory yesterday and spent a few hours with his mechanics and engineers. Button revealed that the deal he has accepted at McLaren will pay him less than he would have earned with Brawn but he had to move because he needed a fresh challenge in his life.
“We offered loyalty which we hoped, perhaps naïvely, he would return,” Brawn CEO is quoted as saying in the Mirror. “There is bravery and there is stupidity, and we will only find out which it is next year.
“We believe we made Jenson a good offer – one that was significantly more than he is being paid at McLaren. We are all mystified by this decision. We think he has been badly advised and had his head turned by McLaren’s glitzy headquarters.”
So the notion of Button being pushed out by Mercedes, which I have never believed, is receding, as is the idea that Button went to McLaren because the financial offer from Brawn/Mercedes was derisory. The belief he would get a more competitive car and the fresh challenge if beating Hamilton are high on his list of reasons.
Button has a history of making moves in the driver market. He twice backed out of moves to Williams and got himself into a mix up. The second time, he had signed a deal and then wanted to get out of it because Williams lost BMW engines. He had to pay a multi-million pound settlement to the team, the negotiation of which was one of Richard Goddard’s first acts as his new manager.
So what next for Brawn? “I believe that the available seat with us is the most attractive on the market,” said Brawn today. The team is in no hurry and can afford to keep Nick Heidfeld waiting. There is quite a lot still in play and Robert Kubica could end up back on the market if Renault decide to pull out. The team has said that it will announce it’s plans at the end of the years, although Indications from French colleagues are that they will stay at least for 2010.
Meanwhile the FIA and FOM are working on a response and possible sanction for Toyota for pulling out of F1 after signing the Concorde Agreement. Until that has been put together, Sauber doesn’t have a place on the grid. Renault will not make it’s decision until it sees how Toyota’s withdrawal is handled by the FIA, although this is by no means its only consideration. This process would ideally be in place in time to be announced at the FIA World Motor Sport Council on December 10th.
Should Renault pull out, Robert Kubica will be available again and Brawn may well want to see how that situation pans out, as it could be less than a month away and Heidfeld’s next best option would be Sauber, which has to wait for its place anyway. The Brawn talked to Kubica over the Autumn but he did not want to wait around to see the outcome of the Button talks.
Kubica and Rosberg is a more formidable sounding line up for Mercedes in 2010 and maybe one worth waiting for.