It seems that Ross Brawn and Jenson Button are in agreement about one thing: Button’s decision to leave Brawn/Mercedes GP wasn’t ultimately motivated by money. Press reports have indicated that Brawn had an offer on the table that was worth more than Button’s McLaren contract, the numerous stories about Brawn’s penuriousness notwithstanding.
As Brawn recently told Auto Motor und Sport, “His decision is disappointing because we worked so well together. But whatever is said, it was not about the money. In the end our offer was even more attractive than McLaren’s. But it doesn’t make sense to employ a driver who would not be happy and sees a bigger challenge somewhere else. Further negotiations would have been pointless.”
In the end, negotiations between Button and Brawn broke down when Brawn discovered that Button had paid a visit to McLaren’s Woking headquarters, and purportedly held a lengthy meeting with McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh. While McLaren’s official comment about the meeting coyly indicated that Button’s stop-over was nothing more than a friendly “hello” visit, clearly that remark was disingenuous. To Ross Brawn, the situation was transparent – Button had opened parallel negotiations with a rival team – and Brawn deemed this a breech of contract. As a result, he withdrew his offer, making Button a free agent.
Button appears to have been swayed by McLaren’s dog-and-pony show. He was given a tour of their trophy room (nearly the size of a Boeing assembly plant, by all accounts), and was ultimately seduced by the idea of joining the elite squad that has been home to such F1 heavyweights as Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Mika Hakkinen.
McLaren is to British drivers what Ferrari is to drivers who hail from Continental Europe, and while the likes of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso might grow up dreaming of one day driving for the Scuderia, a boy from the UK like Button would be more likely to cast his fantasies towards Woking.
Add to this the fact that Button, after feeling the brunt of widespread criticism for his consistently lackluster performance during the second half of 2009, might be looking for a way to redeem himself, and prove that he’s truly a world title caliber driver. What better way to do this than to match yourself, in identical equipment, against a team mate who’s considered to be one of the top two or three drivers on the grid?
“Jenson obviously wanted to be in the same car against Lewis Hamilton,” said Ross Brawn of Button’s motives. “That’s brave and I have to respect it.”
Button’s new contract with McLaren is a three-year deal. If he gets the measure of Hamilton in at least one of these years, he’ll have gone a long way towards nullifying the comments that his success in 2009 was down to the car, and not Button’s driving skills. On the other hand, if Hamilton manages to eat Button’s lunch on a consistent basis, the critics will be back in force, saying Button’s 2009 title was a lucky break, a case of a good driver taking advantage of a great car.
Whichever way the cards fall, it should be an interesting match-up.