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Button Meets with Whitmarsh at McLaren Headquarters

Jenson Button - will he switch to McLaren in 2010?

Jenson Button - will he switch to McLaren in 2010?

Jenson Button, and his manager Richard Goddard, reportedly visited the McLaren factory in Woking on Friday, and were given a tour by team princpal Martin Whitmarsh.  A spokesman for McLaren told The Guardian, “Having just arrived at Heathrow, Jenson made a small detour to Woking to say hello,” but obviously neither McLaren nor Button wanted the significance of the visit to be lost on any interested onlookers – namely, Kimi Raikkonen and Ross Brawn.

Button is still at a stalemate in his negotiations with Brawn.  It is well known that Button took a pay cut in 2009, from approximately 9 million euros per year, to something closer to 3.5 million euros, as an aid to the financially strapped Brawn team, during their post-Honda triage phase.  There is said to have been a verbal agreement between Brawn and Button that his salary would be returned to its pre-Brawn level once funding was secure.

Brawn, however, is apparently now unwilling to follow through with this, and is offering Button only a marginal increase over his 2009 pay rate.  The most recent reports indicate that Button, and his manager Richard Goddard, have stepped back from the 9 million euro figure, and are now asking for something closer to 6.75 million euros.  Brawn is still unwilling to meet their price, which Goddard finds paradoxical.

As reported in The Telegraph, Goddard said, “If they really can’t afford him, then fair enough. I can quite understand Ross Brawn is reluctant to bankrupt the team for the sake of one guy. But if Brawn are going to sell the team, and there is going to be a big influx of money, then why shouldn’t Jenson be making some of that? He was a major contributor to the team’s success this year.”

Goddard also gave a nod to the McLaren rumors, saying, “We have got other irons in the fire.  Ultimately, Jenson is a very loyal guy but at some point it stops being about the money. Let’s face it, everyone likes to feel wanted.”

That has a nice sentimental ring to it, but it brings to mind an old adage: whenever someone tells you it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.

Meanwhile, according to recent reports, McLaren have revised their Christmas list to include the following three drivers as potential replacements for Heikki Kovalainen: Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld, in that order.

A McLaren deal with Button seems contingent upon the failure of Button’s negotiations with Brawn.  If Brawn won’t meet Button’s demands, it’s almost certain that Button will end up at McLaren next year.  However, Button would prefer to stay at Brawn, and there is at least an even-money chance that he’ll do so.

As for Raikkonen, he’s asking a king’s ransom of approximately 25 million euros, which would make him the highest paid driver on the grid by a long chalk, even though he’s no longer considered, in anyone’s books, the sport’s number one driver.  Most observers of the sport would probably rate Alonso, Hamilton and perhaps Vettel above Raikkonen at this point, and those drivers are reportedly earning 13 millon, 10 million and 4 million euros per year, respectively.

Although Kimi can be brilliant, he’s brought a slacker ethic to Formula 1, which is an anachronism.  While many of the younger drivers of today have taken Senna and Schumacher as their role models, it’s been said that Raikkonen’s idol is James Hunt, the world champion of the seventies who was known as much for his hard-partying lifestyle as for his driving skill.  (According to one anecdote, after a particularly rigorous night on the town, Hunt stopped his Formula 1 car trackside in the middle of a free practice session next day, so he could take a nap.)

But the seventies are long gone, and the close of the current decade has brought some harsh economic realities to Formula 1.  If Kimi and his manager Steve Robertson don’t return to planet Earth, it’s very likely that Kimi will be driving rally cars next year, if he’s driving anything at all.

Taking all of this into consideration, Nick Heidfeld could be the dark horse who finally snags the open seat at McLaren.  This outcome would be predicated on the dual premise that Ross Brawn comes to his senses about money, and Kimi Raikkonen does not.  A good choice for McLaren?  Even if Heidfeld is, as he never tires of reminding people, the most underrated driver on the grid, one suspects that replacing Kovalainen with the German pilot might end up being nothing more than a lateral switch.

This possibility would no doubt please Lewis Hamilton, as it would certainly consolidate his position as lead driver at McLaren.  And regardless of what Anthony Hamilton says publicly about their wanting the best driver available as Lewis’s team mate, one suspects that privately the Hamiltons are thinking, What’s good for Lewis is good for the team, and not vice versa.

Image by Vince Pettit, licensed through Creative Commons.

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