Tomorrow’s papers in the UK will be full of stories about how Mercedes’ takeover of Brawn means that the team will have an all German driver line-up, while Jenson Button is being pushed towards an all-English line up of Button and Lewis Hamilton. Indeed the Guardian is reporting this evening that Button is on the point of signing a £6m a year contract for three years. As the piece is written by Alan Henry, who knows what colour the toilet paper is in Woking from one day to the next, this news needs to be taken seriously.
There are some echoes of Damon Hill’s situation in 1996 where his manager was looking to leverage the world championship (although Damon hadn’t won it at that stage) into a better deal for the following year and found that Frank Williams signed Heinz Harald Frentzen instead, leaving Damon without a winning car. In that case, arguably, Williams had already decided to replace Damon and when Damon’s management tried the hard sell Williams just activated the Frentzen deal.
Damon was pushed out, Button is in a better position in that he has had an offer on the table for some time, albeit one in which the fixed fee and the performance based fee is more slanted towards the latter than he wants, given his status as a world champion.
Brawn’s management say they have increased the deal since Button won the title, but they feel that they have played their part in his success too. The door is very much still open to Button to stay with the team. They are not actively pursuing anyone else and feel no great time pressure to do so, knowing that the likely candidates will hold out to see if the drive comes up.
Nick Heidfeld certainly heads that list. I sense that Kimi Raikkonen is more likely to end up, if anywhere, at McLaren rather than Brawn, not just because of the financial side of things, but because of question marks over motivation and consistency. This is not me saying this, but people on the inside of the teams in question.
So Brawn/Mercedes may end up with two German drivers next season, but it will not be because they want two Germans, more that having signed Nico Rosberg some time ago, should Jenson Button decide to call their bluff, the next best driver in line who will get them solid constructors’ championship points every time is Heidfeld. Heidfeld has been hanging out in the hope that either a Brawn or a McLaren seat comes up. He may be lucky.
Much is being made of the idea of Mercdes wanting two German drivers, but Ross Brawn is making the decisions here and I don’t think he would and up with Rosberg and Heidfeld if he started out with a blank sheet of paper. It’s more to do with how circumstances pan out.
As for Button, you can see it from his point of view, he knows that the Alonsos and Hamiltons of this world are on around €15 million per season, of which the fixed part is greater than the performance part, but Hamilton’s deal was done before the credit crunch changed everything. Button had a nice deal set up with Honda, took a pay cut to stay with Brawn and now wants to go back to Honda style money. But the teams aren’t looking to spend like that kind of money anymore. Button’s management clearly feel that Mercedes can afford Honda money, but they don’t want to bite.
And there have been signs all year that the teams talk to each other more than they used to, as a result of the FOTA alliance and the resource restriction agreements and are not wanting to be played off against each other.
The next move is Button’s. It looks like he’s about to make it.