It’s official, newly crowned Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button has signed three-year deal with McLaren, worth an estimated total of 20 million euros. The McLaren team said in a press release, “Vodafone McLaren Mercedes is delighted to announce the signing of the reigning World Champion Jenson Button to a multi-year deal. He will be partnered by 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, who will be embarking on his fourth consecutive season as a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes driver.”
The signing marks the first time in Formula 1 history that the most recently crowned champions will be paired on the same team. It’s also the first time since 1968 that two British world champions are team mates. In 1968, Graham Hill and Jim Clark were partnered at Lotus, although that pairing didn’t last long, as Clark, tragically, was killed in a racing incident early in the season.
As reported in The Telegraph, Button made the following statement regarding his deicision to leave Brawn GP (now Mercedes) for McLaren:
“It’s always a difficult decision to leave a team when you’ve been there for so long. But life is all about challenges – and, most important of all, it’s about challenging yourself. So, although I won the World Championship with Brawn GP last year, and I’ll never forget that, I was always adamant that I wanted to continue to set myself fresh challenges. So that’s why I’ve decided to join Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. You can’t help but be affected by this team’s phenomenal history.”
While every competitor loves a challenge, one suspects that Button’s motivation for changing teams involved more than simply setting a new goal for himself. Much has been made over his protracted salary negotiations with Brawn, and clearly the two sides failed to come to terms. McLaren proved to be more receptive to Button’s asking price.
That said, it must also be admitted that the McLaren team probably holds a special allure for British drivers, much the way Ferrari does for drivers who hail from continental Europe.
As Button explained, “McLaren is one of the greats of world sport, and its achievements and list of past champions read like a Who’s Who of Formula One – Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and of course my new team-mate Lewis Hamilton. I’ve followed the McLaren team ever since I was a small boy, and it feels unbelievable to finally be a part of it.”
So, in a sense, being listed among McLaren’s pantheon of greats will be the fitting capstone to Button’s career.
Nevertheless, say what you like about the glamor associated with being part of the McLaren team, it seems clear that salary was the key factor that determined who would partner Lewis Hamilton next year. It was the parallel stalemates in the Button-Brawn and McLaren-Raikkonen salary negotiations that finally drove Button to the McLaren fold.
Lewis Hamilton, in a public statement, was predictably diplomatic: “It’s fantastic news that Jenson has decided to join Vodafone McLaren Mercedes – and I’m looking forward to working with him and our engineers to make sure we kick off the 2010 season with a car that’s competitive enough to win the World Championship…I already know Jenson, and we get on very well together. We both really want our team to succeed. Although we’ll be pushing each other hard, I’m sure we’ll very quickly establish a great working relationship. He’s an exceptional driver: very controlled and very smooth, and he has a real depth of knowledge and experience. I think we’ll complement each other very well.”
Hamilton also gave a nod to his outgoing team mate of the past two years: “I want to send my best wishes for the future to my 2008-09 team-mate and now good friend Heikki Kovalainen, who is one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met.”
One has to admit, this is somewhat faint praise. Most drivers would probably prefer to be acknowledged for their competitiveness, rather than for being “nice.” But Kovalainen didn’t really distinguish himself in his two years on the Woking squad.
Kovalainen’s ouster now means that both of the series’ Finnish pilots are out of a job for 2010. Kimi Raikkonen’s managers have publicly confirmed that Kimi will take a sabbatical from the sport next year – which, like as not, signifies a permanent departure from Formula 1. While Raikkonen, at 30, isn’t exactly past his shelf date, time marches quickly in Formula 1, and there are always younger, hungrier drivers in the pipeline. It’s difficult to see a slot that might open up for him in 2011, and beyond, unless he decides to lower his standards. This year, he effectively nudged himself out of a job with his “McLaren or nothing” attitude.
Kovalainen’s options in Formula 1 are likewise limited. Renault has yet to confirm their second driver, and the situation at Toro Rosso seems fluid. Ditto, for Force India. And then there are the four new teams. Of the eight drives the new teams bring to the grid, only one has been confirmed: Timo Glock at Manor (Virgin).
Certainly, Kovalainen would be able to land a drive at one of those teams. Renault and Toro Rosso are obviously the best options, but it’s hardly a certainty that slots there would be on offer. That being the case, Kovalainen must ask himself if he’s willing to be a backmarker in a fledgling team just to maintain a toe-hold in Formula 1. Perhaps, like his fellow Finn, Raikkonen, he’ll find a second home in rally cars.