Jenson Button will step down from his McLaren Formula 1 race seat and will be replaced by Stoffel Vandoorne for 2017 but the 2009 world champion will stay with the British team as an ambassador and reserve driver, it was announced today.
The move by McLaren means Button will take a sabbatical from racing in 2017, and like four times world champion Alain Prost, who took a sabbatical after quitting Ferrari at the end of 1991 and signing a contract in 1992 to race for Williams Renault in 1993.
Coincidentally, Prost, who was Button’s F1 idol as a boy, turned 37 in February 1992 when he was on sabbatical. Button will turn 37 in January next year. Prost came back and won the 1993 world championship.
By keeping Button involved, McLaren has given itself an insurance policy against the risk that Fernando Alonso will quit at any point in the next two seasons, for any reason. Ferrari covered the same eventuality when Alonso was there by hiring Kimi Raikkonen. That way they have an experienced driver and world champion alongside Vandoorne if Alonso leaves the sport.
F1 is introducing new aerodynamic rules in 2017, and Alonso, who by that time will be in the third year of his current McLaren contract, recently suggested he may consider retiring from the sport after that season if the new cars are not “fun and exciting to drive”.
Speaking about the new arrangement, McLaren boss Ron Dennis said: “On behalf of all at McLaren-Honda, I want to say how thrilled we are that Jenson has extended his contractual relationship with us. Moreover, I’m absolutely certain that the depth of his experience and the currency of his expertise will give us an advantage over our opposition next season.
“As for Fernando, 2017 will be his third year as a McLaren-Honda race driver, and I need hardly reaffirm his credentials here. So let me simply restate my belief that he’s one of the finest and fastest Grand Prix drivers I’ve ever seen, and we’re very proud to have him in the team.
“He’s been both diligent and patient over the past two seasons, and he shares with all of us at McLaren-Honda the confidence that 2017 will be the season in which our partnership begins to deliver strong results.”
Button, who has won eight races with McLaren since he moved to the British team back in 2010, insisted that today’s news meant he was not retiring.
“I’m delighted that I’ll be staying on as a key member of the McLaren-Honda team,” he said. “In fact I’m massively excited about my new role, which has come about as a result of a number of in-depth chats with Ron. Specifically, I’m looking forward to becoming even more deeply involved in the team’s efforts to bring about the success we’ve all been striving to deliver.
“I love McLaren-Honda – I firmly believe it’s made up of the best bunch of people I’ve ever worked with – and I have no intention of ever driving for another Formula 1 team.
“To be clear, I’m very definitely not retiring. I’m contracted for both 2017 and 2018, I intend to work hard on car-development, and I’m sure I’ll get behind the wheel of the new car at some point.”
Vandoorne has already started one race for McLaren so far in his career, when he stepped in to replace Alonso at this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix when the Spaniard was prevented from racing due to injuries he had sustained in an accident at the season-opening Melbourne race, and the Belgian driver scored the team’s opening point of 2016 by finishing tenth in that event.
When asked by JAonF1 how it felt to achieve his dream of becoming a full-time F1 race driver, the 24-year-old described his relief at securing his immediate career in the sport before explaining how valuable it would be to have Button continuing to have input on next year’s McLaren.
“It’s been a long time coming and it’s something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time,” he said. “It’s not been easy to answer the same questions every week about my future. I’m just very relieved that everything is set now for next year and I can really focus on Melbourne.
“I think we have a very good team for next year with Jenson staying on and myself racing against Fernando. Both are world champions and this year I’ve gained a lot of experience from them, listening to them [on] how they push the team forward, how they develop this car and to keep Jenson in the team and have his experience with us is going to be very valuable for the development.”
So far in his F1 career, Button as started 297 races, claimed 15 Grand Prix victories, 50 podium finishes, eight fastest laps and 1231 points, and he will start his 305th race when the 2016 season finishes in Abu Dhabi.
Button will start 14th on the grid for tomorrow’s Italian Grand Prix, two places behind Alonso, which will be the 51st race since he last claimed an F1 podium – the 2014 Australian Grand Prix – and the 71st event since his he took his least win, the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix.
James Allen’s View: It seems pretty clever by McLaren and it’s a wonder no-one figured this out before the announcement, as it’s been an open secret that Vandoorne was driving next season.
I guess the part that is hard to imagine is Button willingly becoming ‘reserve driver’ which essentially is what has happened here. Is it just a nice gentle let-down, with cash, for Button rather than McLaren easing him into retirement?
Button is realistic. He may get bored next season with time on his hands and choose to drive a GT car or even a rally cross car to keep his hand in. But he has no commitment to anything else at the moment.
From McLaren’s point of view they get to have it all. There is a chance Alonso may pack it in next year if the McLaren Honda is uncompetitive. He has also missed two Grands Prix in the last two seasons due to injury, so what’s to say he won’t have another? Button covers that off too.
There has to be a reasonable chance Alonso will retire at the end of 2017, but if McLaren Honda continues on the progress curve it is currently on, the car will be pretty competitive by then. It will be a case of whether Alonso thinks he has a realistic shot at the 2018 world championship whether he carries on. Then Button would not be needed.
But by then Vandoorne will be very competitive himself and it’s not a given that Alonso would get the number 1 treatment (as he didn’t in 2007) to go for the title. So Button in 2018 has a reasonably possibility of happening if he’s refreshed and still hungry to race.
I think this shows that Button is not ready to retire. The fire is still there and this gives him thinking time.
What do you make of the news that Button will step down from a race seat at McLaren next season? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.