Jenson Button’s British Grand Prix weekend, rather than a happy homecoming, looks likely to feature some awkward questions about his future after the McLaren chairman Ron Dennis gave him a hurry-up in the media.
Button has had another tough season with an uncompetitive car, but his low-key performance in Austria came at an awkward moment as thoughts are focussed on contracts for next season. Button qualified and finished a distant 11th while his rookie team mate Kevin Magnussen was 7th.
Magnussen has finished in the points five times this season to Button’s four, but the Englishman is ahead on points 43 to 29.
In qualifying they are 4-4 with Magnussen just shading it on an average qualifying position of 9.375 compared to Button’s 9.625.
It’s not bad for either driver, but arguably a world champion who has been in the team for four seasons should be shading a rookie by a greater margin. Against that it is a completely new formula, so the playing field is levelled somewhat compared to if they were competing to the old V8 formula.
Dennis wants to revitalise McLaren, to shake it out of the torpor that he and other shareholders felt it had fallen into under Martin Whitmarsh’s reign. What is most problematic for Button, who was hired by Whitmarsh, is that Dennis has chosen to highlight a lack of effort on Button’s part as an issue.
“Do I want him to try harder? Of course I do – he’s a highly-paid grand prix driver,” Dennis told Sky Sports. “Yes, we are not giving him the best car and, yes, it would challenging for him to win in it, to say the least, but he could do his bit and Kevin has to make it as difficult for him as possible.”
“I’m happy with the drivers in the sense that I think they are giving their best. I’m sure Kevin is giving a big wake-up call for Jenson, and in some ways you say, ‘Great, we’ve made a great choice with Kevin’ but in other ways you say, ‘Come on Jenson, you are a world champion and one thing you can do on a consistent basis – and you should be doing it – is beating your team-mate’.
McLaren is in a rut, there is no question about that and the team is currently the worst performing of the Mercedes powered outfits. It lies 6th in the contractors’ championship on 72 points with the less well funded Force India and Williams outfits ahead, albeit the three teams are separated by just 15 points.
But the team is thinking big and is making no secret of wanting to hire a big name driver for next season. But there is little obvious incentive for Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso, two names that have been linked with the team, to return.
Romain Grosjean is not your obvious McLaren driver on some levels, but he is close to team boss Eric Boullier and is definitely very fast. His name is likely to be mentioned if McLaren decide to look elsewhere and cannot land a world champion.
Speaking in Montreal recently Button said of talks on his contract that there was, “No more progress at all. But that’s just the way it is. We’re here, we’ve spent four good years together already. It’s our fifth year together. And we both want to work together in the future but it’s just not time yet. Not the right time.
“We have a lot of other issues to solve first before we start thinking about the future too much. We’re in a good place and y’know, I think my experience does help me a lot. I still feel very young at heart, fitter than ever and I have all that experience. I’m in a great position and I feel I’ve got a lot more to give in the future in Formula One. I definitely can’t see an end to my career.”
Next season comes the return of Honda, which will introduce a new element to the mix at McLaren. The word in F1 engineering circles is that the Japanese giant is a little behind in its preparations with the V6 turbo hybrid engine, the ERS for which is being done by McLaren themselves.
With all the current manufacturers able to upgrade and develop their engines for next season’s use before the next homologation cut-off in February, there is immense effort going into that already for next year.
Honda is going to be up against it with a Stage 1 engine in 2015 against Stage 2 engines from Renault, Ferrari and particularly Mercedes.
Engineers from Mercedes’ rivals are admitting that they will not catch the German manufacturer this season on performance and fuel efficiency this season and will be hard pressed to make major inroads next season.