The latest rumbling in this year’s hyperactive silly season is that Jenson Button might partner Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2010. It’s been widely reported that Button and Brawn GP are currently at a stalemate in trying to hammer out a new contract for the new world champ. Button’s manager Richard Goddard recently told the BBC, “We’ve been trying to agree terms with them. He’s made it clear he wants to stay and had they agreed a contract there would be no speculation. A lot of quality seats may still be available so it’s down to Brawn to make us an offer. But this stuff certainly did not stem from us.”
In other words, if Brawn can’t make a suitable offer, Button will seek his fortunes elsewhere.
Meanwhile, according to a report in The Telegraph, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, when asked if he was talking to Button about a possible seat in 2010, responded by saying, “We’ve talked to a number of drivers. It wouldn’t be appropriate to say more than that. We’ll hire the two best drivers available to us as we always have.” In F1-speak, that means yes, they’ve been talking to Button.
It’s also been widely reported that McLaren have already offered Kimi Raikkonen a contract for 2010, but that the Finn has balked at McLaren’s insistence that he make a certain number of personal appearances at sponsors’ events. I suspect that Kimi would be McLaren’s first choice as a replacement for Heikki Kovalainen (whose name isn’t figuring much at all in this year’s silly season), as they still rate the Finn highly, and they’re well acquainted with his work habits. Kimi was at McLaren for five years before moving to Ferrari.
But McLaren aren’t known for their flexibility, or an over-willingness to accommodate drivers’ demands. If Kimi won’t bend on the sponsors’ obligations, Whitmarsh & Co. might very well pick someone else from their short list.
While Button has indicated a preference for staying with Brawn GP, he does not want to do so at a cut rate. Button agreed to a pay reduction of more than 5 million euros to help ensure the viability of Brawn GP in 2009, but he did so with the understanding that his pay rate would be restored once the team regained sound financial footing.
And therein lies the rub. You would assume that the team which had recently taken both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles would not be facing serious budget issues. However, Brawn GP has been limping along with minimal sponsorship for most of this year. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group has been the team’s sole visible sponsor for most of the season, but that deal is thought to be fairly small. The bulk of Brawn’s funding for 2009 is thought to have come directly from Honda, who felt a certain responsibility for having left their former employees in the lurch on short notice.
Of course, having recently secured both the drivers’ and constructors’ world titles, potential sponsors should be queueing up for the opportunity to throw money at Brawn, but it’s possible that those deals haven’t been finalized yet, in which case Brawn might not have a concrete budget in place for next year. That might explain Brawn’s foot-dragging and/or parsimonioiusness in the contract negotiations with Button.
On the other hand, I wonder if other factors might be coming into play. Current rumors have suggested that Mercedes is about to buy a 70% stake in Brawn GP. It’s very likely that this deal might be partly predicated on having a German driver in one of the Brawns, that driver being Nico Rosberg.
While the Mercedes link would certainly resolve many of Brawn’s financial issues, Brawn will have their work cut out for them next year, trying to stay ahead of, if not merely keep pace with, the heavy hitters on the grid. Both Ferrari and McLaren should be more competitive next year, with the money-drain of KERS behind them. With in-season testing still banned, Brawn will want at least one seasoned driver who will help maximize their development efforts. Rosberg is still relatively new, and this is apt to make Brawn pilot Rubens Barrichello look more attractive as his team mate. Barrichello, with 17 years as an F1 driver under his belt, is regarded by many as a better development driver than Button.
It’s also true that Barrichello soundly outperformed his younger team mate during the second half of 2009. Taking all of this into consideration, it might be that a Barrichello-Rosberg combination makes a lot more sense to Ross Brawn than a Button-Rosberg pairing.
Image by Rick Dikeman, licensed through Creative Commons.