Many consider Jenson Button’s time with McLaren in F1 to be over. At the end of the season they believe it is a done deal for Stoffel Vandoorne to partner Fernando Alonso for 2017 as McLaren-Honda finally become competitive. But is that the only solution?
Button still has something to give
Despite the impressive gains made by Honda across the board with their hybrid power unit, the whole project still needs continuous development work. Button’s 16 years in F1 provide technical input and experience of the Japanese style of operating. As the 2009 world champion has proven this season – when the fates have allowed – he is still fast enough and smart enough to race at the sharp end of the field.
At a time when McLaren are short on commercial partners and lacking a title sponsor, Button’s marketability adds to his case to stay. Even for a team of the pedigree of McLaren, commercial considerations cannot be ignored and Button offers more sales potential than a – from a mass audience perspective at least – unknown Belgian.
But perhaps most importantly, Button does not ruffle feathers within a team and it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of Fernando Alonso’s opinion.
Alonso is the star driver at McLaren and is to be the driver, in year 3 of this project that takes the fight to Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari properly. Ably assisted by Button of course.
Alonso likes Button as his teammate and perhaps most importantly, has a history of disliking young upstarts who come in and put him under pressure. The last time that happened was of course at McLaren with a fresh-faced Lewis Hamilton.
McLaren want to have the two best drivers they can get in their car next season. That is different from seeking the two fastest drivers, or the two drivers likely to compete most closely with each other. Button and Alonso have a good understanding. They are competitive enough to spur each other on without breaking the team apart. The potential damage done by the arrival of Vandoorne at a critical juncture in the McLaren-Honda partnership will be on Ron Dennis’ mind.
Vandoorne’s time will come
Vandoorne is a future star. Whether his first season in F1 should be with McLaren just as they get back to near the front of the field is debatable. Red Bull did not promote Max Verstappen straight to the top echelon. He served his apprenticeship – albeit a very short one – at Toro Rosso.
Vandoorne is likely to be loaned out to another team, particularly if Honda are forced to supply a second team which neither they nor McLaren want. Rumours persist that Williams will take a supply of Honda engines. The relative failure of Valterri Bottas and Felipe Massa to harness the full potential of the current Williams-Mercedes package creates opportunities there (I believe Williams are likely to clean the decks for 2017).
Alternatively, and with a bit of cash from McLaren, Sauber, Manor and even Force India would fall over themselves to run Vandoorne for at least a season.
The bottom line for McLaren and Vandoorne is that the options for 2017 onwards are not as simple as in or out at McLaren.