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Jenson Button is Facing a Dilemma

Jenson Button

Jenson Button

Jenson Button is facing a dilemma.  According to reports, he currently has two prospective deals on the table for 2010.  Brawn GP have offered him a contract, albeit for significantly less money than Button is asking.  Button wants a pay hike commensurate with his new status as newly crowned world champion.  He also expects Ross Brawn to make god on a verbal agreement to return Button’s pay to a level more or less congruent with Button’s pre-Brawn salary, when his paychecks were signed by Honda management.

As the Formula 1 world knows, through numerous reports, Ross Brawn is reluctant to comply with Button’s wishes, ostensibly due to an underfunded team treasury.

Meanwhile, McLaren, have suddenly demonstrated a rival interest in employing Button for the coming season.  While they had initially been keen on rehiring Kimi Raikkonen, a fixture of that team 2002-2006, Kimi’s managers have thus far been unwilling to lower the bar on Kimi’s salary demands, which have made cheaper alternatives look more attractive to the Woking squad.

Button is currently asking for approximately 6.75 million euros, which is less than he was paid by Honda.  Brawn is offering perhaps half of that.  The figures haven’t been made public, but Button earned something in the neighborhood of 3.5 euros in 2009, and Brawn is apparently willing to improve on the latter figure only marginally.

It’s almost certain that McLaren would outbid Brawn for Button’s services.  The question is, by how much?  They apparently offered Raikkonen 5 million euros, so they would at the very least offer Button that much.

And one should also consider that McLaren’s 5 million euro offer for Kimi was a low-ball amount, predicated on the fact that Kimi will collect an additional 10 million euros in severance from Ferrari next year, if he’s an active Formula 1 driver (he’ll collect 17 million if he goes on sabbatical).  A competitive offer for Button would very likely exceed the amount on offer for Kimi.

Triple world champ Niki Lauda has suggested that Button should be careful not to judge 2010 salaries by the standards of previous years.  As reported in the Guardian, Lauda said, “One of the problems faced by drivers today is that there is generally less money around in the business than there was. So if I was Jenson, I would try to stay with Brawn even if Ross might pay him slightly less than McLaren. Of course, if McLaren are going to pay a lot more, then he must go.”

Of course, there are other key issues for him to consider, besides the financial ones.  As the new world champion, he’ll want a fair chance to defend his title, which means he’ll need the right equipment to do so.  Both McLaren and Brawn are good bets for providing him with the tools that he needs.  While McLaren had a lopsided year in 2009, they’re one of the richest teams on the grid, and they’ll likely be very strong again in 2010.

Brawn GP, while not as well funded as McLaren at the moment, are certain to be contenders next year as well.  For one thing, one should never underestimate the acumen of Ross Brawn.  In the past 20 years, he’s been technical director and/or principal at 3 major teams: Benetton, Ferrari and Honda/Brawn GP, and he’s played a huge role in winning world titles at all three teams.  There is no reason to suspect that the 2009 titles for Brawn were a lucky fluke.

As for Brawn’s funding for 2010, which is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, if the Mercedes buy-in goes through, they will have a substantial war chest for the 2010 campaign.  Current rumors suggest that the deal is on, but that Mercedes has a team of lawyers at work trying to extricate the Stuttgart company from their contractual obligations to McLaren, and their various sponsorship partners.

So, as far as equipment goes, either choice would seem to be a win for Button.

Then, there’s the issue of driver status.  If Button remains at Brawn, it’s expected that his team mate will be Nico Rosberg.  Button would begin the year with a putative team leader status, although it’s certain that Rosberg would be anxious to make his mark by outperforming the Briton.  Even so, Button would have the advantage of veteran status within the team.  He’s familiar with the engineers, and their methods, and he’d be sure to begin the 2010 with an edge over his younger team mate, especially considering that pre-season testing is very brief under the current rules.

Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton

At McLaren, it would be a different story.  As Niki Lauda said, “[McLaren] is Lewis’s team and [Button] needs to be sure he has the confidence to deal with this. It is a tough decision for Jenson and he needs to think it through carefully.”

Currently, Lewis Hamilton is the hub of McLaren.  Hamilton was first apprenticed to the team during his karting days, when he was barely old enough to shave.  He continued to enjoy McLaren’s support during his climb through the junior formulas.  He’s been a McLaren driver for over a decade, which makes his status within the team rather unique.

Fernando Alonso discovered, much to his chagrin, how solidly entrenched Lewis was within the Woking squad.  In 2007, even though Alonso was a double world champion, and Lewis was a only rookie, it could be said that Lewis had a de facto number one status over the Spaniard.  Alonso is a political infighter by nature, and it was inevitable that the season would end in tears.

Heikki Kovalainen encountered much the same situation as Alonso, when he joined the team in 2008.  Although he has made the occasional complaint in public about his unofficial number two status, his performance has never seriously rivaled Hamilton’s, so his protests have generally been ignored.

How would Button fare under these conditions?  History seems to indicate that he’s not much of an infighter.  Button seems more inclined to simply get on with the job, letting his performance speak for itself.  At McLaren, there is no guarantee that this will work in his favor.  Since his arrival in Formula 1, Button has been paired with Ralf Schumacher, Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Jacques Villeneuve and Rubens Barrichello, and he has not always had the measure of his team mate.  In Hamilton, he might well be facing his most gifted team mate rival to date.

While Button can be very quick when the car works well, he can seem lost if the car needs sorting out.  One suspects that Hamilton might have a better innate ability to drive around a handling problem than Button does.  And Hamilton seems to have more of a killer instinct than Button.  Button is generally known as a fair, gentlemanly driver, while Hamilton’s on track tactics have sometimes been branded as overly aggressive, in the vein of Senna or Schumacher.

In the end, the risk of Button’s being overshadowed by his team mate would be greater at McLaren than it would at Brawn.  And while Button must be savoring a confidence high at the moment, one wonders if that would start to unravel if he were convincingly outperformed by Hamilton in 2010.

Images by Ian MacWilliams and Paul Woolrich, licensed through Creative Commons.

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