Jenson Button has done what he threatened to do; quit the team he won the championship with and launched a new adventure with McLaren.
Button has a three year contract to race alongside Lewis Hamilton in an all British “World Champions” superteam.
Everyone at the Brawn team in Brackley will be disappointed by this and there will be lots of question marks about loyalty and “feeling valued” swimming around on both sides. But at the end of the day Button has gone because Brawn and Mercedes were prepared to let him – and that says quite a lot.
The timing is hugely significant here. From McLaren’s point of view it is a much needed positive on a week when it was effectively divorced from it’s long term partner of 15 years and it really takes the shine off Mercedes’ big moment of announcing its own team with Brawn. They are now facing up to running Rosberg and Heidfeld next season, a line-up which will fill no-one with dread.
Button’s timing is less obvious. He is leaving a team which won the title on a wing and a prayer this season at the moment when it is about to become one of the great powerhouses of F1. In Ross Brawn, Mercedes feel they have a technical leader who can bring them the kind of domination they enjoyed in the 1950s. Brawn is also well set up to adapt to the new F1, under the resource restriction agreement, whereby teams will have to carry smaller staff numbers and will only be able to take 45 people to Grands Prix.
No-one should underestimate McLaren, however and it may well be that next year’s car is the fastest in the field. After all, they have excellent engineering strength in depth. But they still have to go through the painful process of downsizing, especially on the race team side. To remain operationally excellent while shedding 25 or more roles on site will not be easy and McLaren have been asking the other teams for some extra time to get there. I can’t see Brawn agreeing to that now.
Then you have the central question, which is why would Button want to go up against Lewis Hamilton in equal cars, when he could have stayed where he was and raced Nico Rosberg? I’ve said all along that this is a battle I do not believe he can win. But he has chosen to take on the challenge in exchange for a three year contract worth £6 million a year. I spent quite a bit of time with him in Abu Dhabi and he was talking then about “fresh challenges and resetting targets”.
I took it to mean he was afraid of becoming demotivated, having achieved his life time’s ambition and I admire him for deciding to take on one of the greatest challenges imaginable in F1, the other being to race Alonso in equal cars.
It proved too much of a challenge for Heikki Kovalainen, who’s head was completely destroyed by Hamilton. Button is more mentally resilient; he handled being beaten by Rubens Barrichello calmly. But the very fact that that happened quite a bit in the last few years makes you wonder about the wisdom of tackling Hamilton.
At the start of the season, Button will have the psychological advantage of carrying the number one on his car, with Hamilton number two, but that is only likely to prove an even greater motivation for the 2008 champion to assert himself over his new team mate.
“It’s always a difficult decision to leave a team when you’ve been there for so long, ” said Button. “But life is all about challenges – and, most important of all, it’s about challenging yourself. So, although I won the World Championship with Brawn GP last year, and I’ll never forget that, I was always adamant that I wanted to continue to set myself fresh challenges. So that’s why I’ve decided to join Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.
“Lewis has achieved an incredible level of success in a very short period of time, and he’s a wonderfully gifted driver who has earned the respect of every Formula 1 driver. I’m sure there’s plenty that we can learn from each other.”
“I think it’s fantastic that we’ll be forming an all-British line-up, ” said Button. “I know that we both fly the flag with pride, and I sincerely hope we can make the whole of the United Kingdom, as well as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes fans across the world, proud. Nothing means more to me than to be able to represent my country, and I’m looking forward to both of us painting Formula 1’s circuits red, white and blue for many years to come.”
It will be ironic if the ongoing negotiations to save the British Grand Prix in the light of Donington’s failure do not succeed. However I understand that some senior government figures are involved in this and that there is optimism that a deal will be done.
It’s interesting to remember that when Ron Dennis was looking for a partner for Fernando Alonso and hired Lewis Hamilton, he said that he had been through every driver on the grid and they had all either “peaked” or “plateaued” – at the time Button was certainly one of the drivers he was talking about. Button has certainly turned that perception around in McLaren’s eyes.
Final point, it will be interesting to see the two Dads together, John Button and Anthony Hamilton. They have quite a bit of history and not all of it positive. That said they are both professional F1 Dads now and will no doubt put on a show. They have succeeded in the past; Lewis used engines tuned by John Button to win one of his karting championships.