McLaren press the Button

So the deed is done, and world champion Jenson Button is off to McLaren in 2010. Is this a good thing or a bad thing for Jenson?

The prevailing reaction to the news online seems to be that this is a Big Mistake for him. He’s going from a team he’s worked with, stood by and helped build up for seven years (first as BAR then Honda and finally as Brawn) and going to a team notoriously hard-headed and detached from the emotional needs of its drivers, and moreover a team that is already formed around one individual – Lewis Hamilton. Lewis saw off Fernando Alonso and now waves farewell to Heikki Kovalainen, so what’s the betting that he will benefit from his ’embedded’ position within the team to see off Button as well?

Actually I don’t buy that logic. I don’t think McLaren throw themselves at any particular driver, not even someone who has been a “company man” for as long as Lewis has been. It was this dispassionate even-handedness that incensed Alonso, the fact that the team wouldn’t give one driver priority over the other. It’s hard to think that they won’t take the same balanced approach now, especially given that both drivers have equal pedigrees as world champions; it’s not like a rookie coming in, such as Kovalainen, who was automatically going to struggle and be unfavourably compared with Hamilton.

Hamilton will have vastly more familiarity with the team, the culture and more importantly the hardware. But this is where things might get very interesting: McLaren make superbly precise cars, mechanically perfect in every way; and Jenson’s driving style is equally smooth and perfect. It should be a match made in Heaven, whereas Lewis’ style of driving is somewhat more rough and tumble and on the edge. He’s made it work but in a totally different way from Jenson’s style of driving, and it will be fascinating to see which one of them the 2010 McLaren ends up suiting best. This, rather than years of history with the team, should prove to be the key factor in determining who comes out on top at Woking.

But why should Jenson put himself into this head-to-head? Why not just stay at “his” team? Well, for one thing, he’s been there for seven years and finally achieved the ultimate goal; surely it’s time to try something different after all those years in one place. Not moving would suggest a degree of inertness and lack of vision.

Accusations of “disloyalty” are being thrown at Jenson, which is frankly absurd: he stuck with the team when Honda quit and things looked bleak, instead of casting around for a life raft with another team. He even took a paycut to help the team survive. You can understand his desire to see that be rewarded with a decent pay deal befitting a world champion, especially now Brawn have been bought out by the cash-rich Mercedes. But instead, Ross Brawn and Mercedes have taken a hard-headed view on capping expenses, and that prices Button out of contention. Well, so be it – you can’t blame him for thinking enough’s enough and it’s time to move on.

But the real reason why I think Button is right to leave Brawn is that I fear the team may struggle in 2010, with or without Jenson. Much of the success they achieved this year was on the back of a car developed on the huge budget Honda provided and through a clever exploitation of a loophold on rear diffusers; once Honda disappeared and the team shrank down, there was no cash for onward development, everyone else adopted rear diffusers – and Brawn started to sink backwards down the standings. Only that early success kept them far enough ahead in the championships to clinch the titles in the end, but it was a narrow squeak.

It’s hard to see how they won’t be starting midfield in 2010. Mercedes may have come on board but this is very late in the day for next year’s car development, so we’re probably looking at 2011 before the team can catch up with its rivals again. Next year could be very tough for the team, and I very much doubt that Jenson Button would be able to defend the world championship in a Brawn/Mercedes next year.

So where should he go instead? Ferrari’s full-up, Red Bull is also locked up, that leaves … McLaren. Yes, there is the obvious problem that he’d be up against Lewis Hamilton, but is that such a big gamble? If the 2010 McLaren is a genuine championship contender (and the rate of improvement in the car in 2009 suggests it will be) then surely it’s better to be in it than staring at from behind? Is Jenson comes second to Lewis Hamilton in the 2010 championship then that will be a triumph (losing to another world champion is better than seeing the likes of Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel or Felipe Massa get the better of you.)

My bet is that Lewis will come out top of the team mates in 2010, but that Jenson will do pretty well and push pretty hard. I susect they will be the best team in 2010. And I think Jenson Button’s made the right choice in moving there.

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