The news that McLaren hasn’t yet confirmed Jenson Button as one of its drivers for next season surprised most fans. After all, here is a man who was performed consistently very well for the team for the past three seasons, taking eight victories and finishing second in the 2011 championship. Here is a very experienced and technically strong driver, vital qualities for the big rule changes next season. And here is a public relations and advertising dream; good looking, gregarious and cheery.
So the question stands, why have McLaren not offered him a contract extension? As the public are not privy to inside McLaren management discussions, it’s impossible to know for sure; but it is possible to have a few informed guesses.
The first reason is, or more accurately was, Kimi Raikkonen. McLaren Team Principal, Martin Whitmarsh is known to be a huge fan of the Finn and talks were rumoured to have taken place between the two parties. However, now that Raikkonen has signed for Ferrari instead, and Button has still not been signed up, it’s clear there must be a different answer to the question.
A second possible answer, which appears outlandish upon first thought, involves McLaren’s junior drivers. Rivals Red Bull have promoted one of their juniors, Daniel Ricciardo into their team for next season and McLaren have made a few noises in the press recently about their juniors, Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne – currently first and second in the Renault World Series.
The two young drivers are highly rated by McLaren and the team has been making determined efforts to get one of them, namely the more experienced Magnussen, a seat in Formula One.
Talks took place with Force India, who have benefited of late from a large technical partnership and windtunnel usage agreement with McLaren, and Magnussen was booked to be Force India’s driver at the Silverstone Young Driver Test.
However, for unpublicised reasons Force India ditched Magnussen in favour of James Calado. Since this announcement, McLaren have made further media comments about finding a seat for Magnussen and are known to be working on a strong sponsorship package for the Dane.
The issue is complicated by the current state of Formula One finances. Small teams are picking drivers on the money they bring to the team, such as Pastor Maldonado and his huge PDVSA sponsorship money. It is indeed a sad reflection on the sport, that it is not enough now for a driver to get a seat on his talent alone.
Yet it is not the teams’ fault that this is the situation. Teams need to survive and to survive they need the money. It is a short term view, but it is the only one the teams can choose.
It would surely be easier for McLaren, if Magnussen’s talent is as brilliant as the team claim, which now can be roughly judged on the team simulator, to give him a seat at the big team itself.
Sure, it sounds absurd. Why would a hugely respected team switch world champion Button for a rookie when its other driver is the inexperienced and often criticised Sergio Perez.
But McLaren are in a state of change. A technical partnership with Honda starts in 2015 by which time Button will be 35 years old and new title sponsors are being signed up.
A gamble on Magnussen wouldn’t be the safe thing to do. But think of the last time McLaren signed a rookie and the theory isn’t as absurd as it may first appear.