After a fairly dull and dismal Italian Grand Prix on track, the only major talking point from the weekend was McLaren’s 2017 driver lineup. Does it mean things are all over for JB?It’s a classic McLaren piece of stage management. Stoffel Vandoorne joins Fernando Alonso as the two race drivers for 2017, whilst Buttons retains an “ambassadorial” role within the McLaren universe. It means the team have an option should a) Vandoorne somehow prove to be useless, or b) Fernando Alonso decide he can’t be bothered with the same crap anymore. It also means the firm retains the ability to milk Jenson’s marketing appeal. No doubt there’ll be numerous videos of him drifting McLaren road cars and other race cars over the next twelve months.
McLaren are no stranger to having drivers take a sabbatical. Mika Häkkinen famously took one for the 2002 season which, curiously, was also announced just before the 2001 Italian Grand Prix. After being World Drivers’ Champion in 1998 and 1999, along with finishing as runner-up in 2000, Häkkinen has suffered a challenging 2001. With the desire to win having faded, and fear from big crashes lingering, it wasn’t a huge surprise that Häkkinen officially announced his retirement from Formula 1 in 2002, at the relatively young age of only 33.
Button, in comparison, is substantially older in F1 terms at 36 – meaning a comeback in 2018 would see him aged 38. For comparison, Michael Schumacher was 41 when he returned to racing in 2010 although Schumacher had, undoubtedly, a very rare degree of talent. Jenson is clearly a cut above many drivers, having taken 22 wins, but would he really have the ability and desire to get back behind the wheel of an F1 car after a year away?One of Button’s overriding motivations for this ‘break’ has been the opportunity to take time out to enjoy other things. After almost 17 seasons of life inside the Formula 1 bubble, the chance to step outside that is obviously a big deal for him. Whether or not the loss of the adrenaline rush from racing can be recaptured is likely to be a major challenge, should the prospect of Button returning to racing somehow become real. Limits on in-season testing, and the new-look cars for 2017 mean he’ll be further away from the cutting edge after a year on the sidelines. As much as McLaren may like to argue the potential for his racing return in 2018 is real, ESM would bet real money that Jenson won’t race a Formula 1 car again.
Regardless of this, the situation is a great one for Stoffel Vandoorne, but one that he should ultimately be a little wary of. McLaren have a habit of casually discarding young drivers after their first season at the Woking team, often with detrimental effects on their Formula 1 careers. Sergio Perez was dumped unceremoniously at the end of 2013, whilst Kevin Magnussen found out by email that he wouldn’t be required for 2015. So as much as R0n Dennis may state Vandoorne is there for the long haul, nothing can be certain when driving for McLaren.
How will history remember Jenson Button? His 2009 World Drivers’ Championship with Brawn GP will most likely be his epitaph. Time may well dampen the fact that he ‘lucked out’ with the advantage of a car with a special diffuser at the start of the season. The six wins he took mean his 2009 title is one of the least dominant of the past 18 years, essentially labouring to the championship win as other teams caught up His contract disputes with BAR and Williams will also be remembered by F1 insiders. Ironically, Claire Williams admitted to wanting to sign Button for a 2017 race seat, yet not being able to. Perhaps that’s karma for the two times he stood them up…
Whatever the future holds for Jenson, him not racing will be a change for many. Kids born since 2000 have only known a world in which he raced in F1. In fact Jos Verstappen, Max’s father, was still racing in Formula 1 when Button made his debut – that is how long he has been there for.
Good luck Jenson – there’s always the opportunity to start a Coldplay tribute act if you don’t get another race seat. Just remember to go through your “conscious uncoupling” from McLaren first…