F1: Button retirement will add to McLaren-Honda woes

As speculation mounts that Jenson Button will retire from F1 at the end of the season, MotorSportNotes examines why the former world champion’s retirement will only compound the problems facing the troubled McLaren-Honda partnership.

Despite the PR rhetoric, the 2009 World Champion has lost patience with McLaren-Honda. In the midst of a season that has turned sour in a way no one at McLaren dared to consider, Jenson Button has realised that the McLaren-Honda partnership is at least 2-3 years away from performing anywhere near the front of the F1 grid. In the twilight of his career the dual challenges of dragging his team to the front whilst simultaneously having to justify his selection ahead of younger opposition holds little appeal.

For McLaren-Honda Button’s departure may solve the headache of 3 drivers – Button, Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne – vying for one race and one reserve seat reserve. But conversely it will create further problems for the already troubled reboot of the famous McLaren-Honda partnership.

Experienced applicants only

There are two specific issues that will add to the list of problems at McLaren should Button retire, the first of which is the role of the drivers in getting the partnership out of the mire.

McLaren need drivers with bags of experience and development knowledge. They need them right now and for the foreseeable future. Despite the many problems with the Honda power unit, McLaren have not produced a world-beating chassis. Positive pronouncements from the team aside, few in the F1 paddock believe the McLaren is as good as the team think it is. It is easy to forget that McLaren had the dominant Mercedes power unit last season and comprehensively underperformed do to inherent chassis problems that took much of the season to decipher. The design DNA of the 2015 challenger comes from 2014’s at times unruly MP4-29. While it may not seem like it, the blame for the dismal 2015 season does not lie entirely with Honda.

Working the kinks out

Engineering the issues out of the McLaren chassis requires drivers with deep reserves of knowledge. Their feel for the car relative to the reference points of previous chassis (and teams) will accelerate the development process. In terms of Honda’s game of power unit catch up, Button has first hand experience of the leading Mercedes engine from 2014 and that benchmark is invaluable – particularly considering that Fernando Alonso’s reference point is Ferrari’s underwhelming 2014 unit.

In comparison Kevin Magnussen’s single F1 season in 2014 and Vandoorne’s limited testing mean both are severely lacking in this regard. Both may be young, talented and hungry to perform but it remains the case in F1 that drivers can only be as good as their equipment and how best it is deployed.

History repeats itself?

The scenario of Button retiring to be replaced by either Magnussen or Vandoorne also has echoes of 2007 when a certain youngster upset Fernando Alonso first time around at McLaren.

Vandoorne is being considered, for now, in the same category as Lewis Hamilton was during his GP2 career. The Belgian is world-champion material according to many and whilst he is likely to be slotted in to the reserve role held by Magnuseen, the prospect of the GP2 champion-elect jumping in to a race seat and rattling Alonso’s cage must be troubling many at McLaren. Not in the sense that it could cause a similar internal break up as 2007 but instead that it would likely see Alonso leave F1 and McLaren altogether. In the interim there would be divisions within the team which would undoubtedly further hamper the essential development work needed to move forward on the grid.

Worst case scenario

Shorn of Button and Alonso and with car performance still likely to be no better than lower midfield, McLaren-Honda would struggle to attract any of the leading drivers. On the one hand that would open up the way for an exciting Magnussen/Vandoorne partnership (with the added spice of potentially a few redundant Red Bull drivers in the mix) but that would be against the backdrop of an ongoing game of development catch-up which neither of those drivers are equipped for.

Whilst McLaren fans and neutrals alike are despairing at the difficulties the team face now, the timing of Button’s likely departure could make things even worse. There is a very real risk that the combination of Honda’s inherent engine design flaws, the problems with the design lineage of McLaren’s chassis and Button’s departure could set the team back years against Mercedes and Ferrari.

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