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Button and Brawn Still at Loggerheads

Jenson Button - show me the money!

Jenson Button - show me the money!

It seems that Ross Brawn and Jenson Button are still at loggerheads in their contract negoations for 2010.  As has been well publicized, both Button and his team mate Rubens Barrichello took steep pay cuts in 2009 to help ensure the survival of the team.  Apparently, this was done with the understanding that their former pay levels would be restored once the team found its footing finanacially.

Of course, the pay raise would be predicated on contract renewal. Both Button and Brawn were apparently on a one year deal with Brawn for 2009.  Barrichello evidently sensed that in his case a new contract might not be on offer, so he opted for the proactive approach, and accepted an offer from Williams, where he will have yet another one-year deal.

Jenson Button, however, would prefer to defend his title at Brawn GP.  Unfortunately, salary continues to be a sticking point.  Judging by reports being leaked to the press, if Ross Brawn promised any kind of a pay raise for 2010, he must have done so in very general terms, for he is now trying to freeze Button’s salary at its current level of approximately 3 million euros per year.  Button is pressing for something closer to 9 million euros, which is what he was earning when the team was under Honda management.

As a consolation, Brawn has offered to sweeten the pot.  As reported in The Telegraph, Brawn said, “We can offer a higher proportion of driver freedom and that will probably be the route we will go. Jenson has some freedom for his own endorsements but has a commitment to meet our obligations.”

Some teams (McLaren comes to mind) prohibit their drivers from having personal endorsement contracts of any kind, on the assumption that such arrangements only dilute a driver’s promotional value vis a vis the team’s own sponsors.  Others, such as Ferrari, often give their drivers more freedom.

Of course, drivers of the first rank can usually call their own shots.  Senna and Schumacher always had personal endorsement contracts, regardless of which team they were on.  Schumacher once turned down Ron Dennis’s offer to join McLaren simply because Dennis made it clear he wouldn’t allow the German ace to keep his lucrative endorsement deals.  So Schumi said, Danke, aber nein danke!

Certainly, Button is in a position, as the newly crowned world champion, to make quite a haul in new endorsement contracts.  In fact, he stands to make more from ensdorsements during the coming year than he would from his salary.

Nevertheless, to offer Button commercial free agency in lieu of salary is a tactic typically employed by backmarker teams.  When Schumacher was raking in tens of millions from his endorsement deal, he was also receiving about $50 million annually in straight salary.  For Ross Brawn to take the brown-bag approach would seem to indicate that his finances for the coming year are not quite settled.  There has been much speculation about an acquistion by Mercedes, but nothing has been announced, and it could be that Brawn is simply trying to delay his salary commitments until a deal with Mercedes has been inked.

Note, too, that Nico Rosberg, the putative second driver at Brawn in 2010, has also not publicly announced his plans for next year, which further suggests that details are still in play behind the scenes.

If Button decides he can’t drive for Brawn for the money on offer, his alternatives are limited.  His only real option would be McLaren, and while they have expressed interest in Button publicly, some have suggested that this is merely ploy to induce their real target, Kimi Raikkonen, to be more flexible in his own ongoing negotiataions with the team.

The discrepancy between Button’s asking price and Brawn’s offer is dwarfed by the salary gap between Raikkonen and McLaren. Kimi is demanding 25 million euros, and the Woking brass are offering only 5 million.  Whether they’ll be able to bridge the gap depends on how hungry Kimi is for the drive.

And a wild card not often mentioned is Nick Heidfeld, who is still on the market after the withdrawal of BMW in 2010.  Heidfeld might end up being plan B for either Brawn or McLaren, depending on what happens with Button and Raikkonen.  It’s clearly a case of musical cars, as the three drivers mentioned above are in contention for only two vacant seats.  Of course there are still vacancies at Manor, Lotus, USF1 and Campos…if anyone is interested.

Image by Mat Hanson, licensed through Creative Commons.

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