Button to McLaren – the real deal or just pretend?
Jenson Button’s eye-catching visit to McLaren on Friday is of obvious benefit to both parties, whatever the reality behind the headlines.
If a deal is done, the new Formula One champion gets the bigger salary that Brawn are reluctant or unable to pay as well as a potentially winning car for next season.
McLaren would get a line-up of champions that will appeal to global sponsors like Vodafone and show that they remain, along with Ferrari, a big hitting team that can always pull in the top talent.
At the very least, Button is able to send a clear message to Brawn that he has other, viable and possibly more lucrative, options and that they cannot assume he will just stay out of loyalty.
McLaren are similarly able to remind Kimi Raikkonen, until now widely considered the main choice to partner Lewis Hamilton, that they too have alternatives and that he should consider reducing his wage demands.
Raikkonen, their former driver who won the 2007 title with Ferrari and has now left the Italian team, was seen at the factory on Wednesday with his management.
But what if Brawn don’t blink, Raikkonen refuses to accept McLaren’s terms and Button signs up to join Hamilton?
Most people assume Brawn already have Germany’s Nico Rosberg signed up, even if it is not yet official, and Mercedes lined up to buy a majority stake.
Mercedes would not mind too much if a German suddenly became the main driver at Brawn and the team could easily find a suitable second string to push him hard enough to stay motivated.
Heikki Kovalainen, the Finn who would be pushed out of McLaren after being eclipsed by Hamilton, might be one such figure. He is a good team player, popular and capable of keeping Hamilton on his toes.
Germany’s Nick Heidfeld is also available after BMW’s pullout.
The downside for Brawn is losing Button’s coveted number one, with the impact that might have on would-be sponsors.
Button should be able to continue winning races at McLaren, who can expect to be a lot better next year than this, but there the downside is all his.
Hamilton has been a part of McLaren for more than a decade and he and the team fit together as snugly as a driver’s fireproof underwear. The 24-year-old Briton is also getting better and better.
“If I was Jenson, I would try to stay with Brawn even if Ross might pay him slightly less than McLaren,” retired triple champion Niki Lauda told the Guardian newspaper. “Of course, if McLaren are going to pay a lot more, then he must go.
“But the other thing he must consider is that it is Lewis’s team and he 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.”
Brawn said this week there was a 99 percent chance of Button staying.
He may be right but after Friday, you have to wonder.
PHOTO: Brawn GP Formula One driver Jenson Button of Britain celebrates his third place at the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit November 1, 2009. REUTERS/Steve Crisp