The latest turn of the wheel in the saga over where Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen will race next year is that Button and his manager, Richard Goddard visited McLaren’s Woking HQ yesterday.
In itself that is no great surprise, it sends out a message to Brawn that Button has options and McLaren are known to be good payers. For McLaren it sends out a signal to Raikkonen, whose manager also toured McLaren this week, to act now if he wants to stay in F1 in a competitive car and to be more realistic about his salary demands.
But what makes this far more interesting is that both McLaren and Button have decided to go the extra mile and make a media event out of it. Indeed one could almost say that they are rubbing Brawn’s and Raikkonen’s respective noses in it.
The Guardian’s Alan Henry, who is very close to McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, has written a piece where McLaren are happily admitting that Button made the visit, “To say hello”, according to a team spokesman. The flippancy of this comment says it all about what is going on here.
Meanwhile Goddard has a much more focussed message to send to Brawn; that all this stonewalling over salary rises means Jenson does not feel “valued”. You can feel his pain, but this is an unsentimental business. Ross Brawn went on the radio this week to say that he couldn’t pay Button any more money, but that he was free to sign up some personal sponsors to make up the shortfall.
But Goddard seemed to be offering Brawn a last chance to change his mind, as his driver toured McLaren and tried to imagine himself wearing silver,
“I think it’s important that Jenson wants to feel valued in whatever situation he finds himself next season,” Goddard said. “He needs to explore all the feasible options. We’ve been talking about possible terms for 2010 with Brawn for months and we’re not being difficult or unreasonably expensive in our demands for Jenson. In fact we’ve given up quite a lot of negotiating ground in our discussions with them.”
According to the Guardian, Button is looking for a rise on the £4m deal he has on the table, which was based on the cut-price deal he accepted from Brawn this year. Brawn clearly doesn’t feel he’s worth it and that makes Button not feel “valued”
So how will Brawn react to this? He already has Nico Rosberg signed up for next year, with the full blessing of Mercedes. It would be interesting to know what Rosberg’s retainer is, particularly if it is higher than the sum on offer to Button.
Raikkonen is available, but if Brawn is counting the pennies then Raikkonen is another pay grade altogether. Rubens Barrichello has already moved on to Williams. There are other solid reliable drivers around, like Nick Heidfeld or Timo Glock, but is there another on Button’s level?
A move to McLaren would surely be a mistake for Button, as he would be up against Lewis Hamilton in a team which is not only built around him, but which is in awe of what he achieved this season with a poor car. Hamilton has undoubtedly grown substantially as a driver in 2009 and we will probably see the results of that next year.
Button won the world title this year, but by his own admission he lost it a bit in the second half of the season. Brawn are now making him pay for that fallibility.
So is this just showboating or are Button’s people serious? According to Alan Henry, McLaren has now made Button its prime target and demoted Raikkonen to number two with Heidfeld number three.
This situation is reaching its endgame. Button is threatening to take that cherished number one away from Brawn. There is also a Mercedes dynamic here as they are moving away from McLaren and towards Brawn. They have no say in the driver decisions, even if they have some influence. A little of this could be McLaren looking to give Brawn some pain for the way the Mercedes talks have gone.
Also having two world champions in your team underlines your status. McLaren are very keen at the moment to underline that they and Ferrari are the really big names in F1, they carry the weight. As McLaren steers towards a new future without Mercedes from 2012 onwards, keeping self esteem high and the sponsors happy right now is an important strategy. Button would do a far better job than Heikki Kovalainen, but would following Hamilton home everywhere do much for his career?
It’s up to Ross Brawn to make a revised offer or call Button’s bluff. He will have a pretty good idea from the data of how Button would match up to Hamilton. He is a real pragmatist and will not take any of this personally, even if he might be mildly annoyed by this latest move. He will do whatever suits his long-term objectives for the path down which he is taking his team with Mercedes for the future.