Button expected to stay on at McLaren
Alonso-rivalling performances and popularity with sponsors make him a shoo-in for a 2016 seat
Jenson Button is likely to be retained by McLaren as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate next season. McLaren have a contractual option on 35-year-old Button for 2016, and it was understood, as F1 Racing closed for press, that McLaren were leaning towards taking it up.
Button has been closely matched with Alonso in their first season together, just as he was against Lewis Hamilton in their three seasons together from 2010-12. With Button still performing at a high level, McLaren believe they will benefit from keeping him alongside Alonso and running two experienced world champions for another season.
Button has the added advantage of being extremely attractive to McLaren’s sponsors, and the Alonso-Button driver line-up gives the team more pull in negotiations with potential new financial partners than they’d have if they promoted one of their young drivers, Kevin Magnussen or Stoffel Vandoorne, who have lower profiles. This is particularly important given that McLaren have not had a title sponsor since the end of 2013, and especially considering their on-track struggles due to a lack of performance from the Honda engine.
Button has raced for McLaren since 2010, but his seat for this season – at the expense of 2014 team-mate Magnussen – was only confirmed in December last year following a boardroom dispute at McLaren. Chairman Ron Dennis and racing director Eric Boullier had decided to retain Magnussen alongside new signing Alonso, but shareholder Mansour Ojjeh said he wanted to keep hold of Button. Dennis, who has for some time been trying to buy out Ojjeh’s 25 per cent stake to take overall control of the McLaren Group, decided that because he needed to keep Ojjeh on-side for business reasons, it was not worth rocking the boat over driver choice.
The potential sticking point for Button is most likely to be money. The 2009 world champion took a pay cut to remain at McLaren for this season, and is guaranteed a pay rise in the second year of his contract. This could prove awkward for McLaren at a time when they are suffering a decrease in external sponsorship revenues. McLaren would prefer not to pay Button the extra money, but sources say that they are able to if they have to.
In many ways, McLaren cannot afford not to pay Button the extra money. Any attempt to re-negotiate would constitute a breach of contract that would render Button free to walk away should he so choose.
That could lead to Button moving to another team, or leaving F1 altogether. Publicly, Button maintains that he has not yet thought about his future beyond the end of this season, and that he has not yet had discussions with McLaren about continuing, or with other teams about joining them should he become a free agent. Sources close to Button say he wants to remain in F1 – but only at McLaren-Honda.
Williams, the team with whom Button broke into Formula 1 in 2000, had expressed an interest in him when it still looked possible that they might lose Valtteri Bottas to Ferrari. This now seems far less likely and they are aiming to retain their current line-up of Bottas and Felipe Massa for 2016. In any case, Button was not keen on moving back to Williams.
There have been various newspaper reports claiming that Button might consider a move to rallying next, and it’s true that he has long considered trying rallycross when his F1 career ends. His father, John, who died last year, was a big name in the sport in the 1970s. However, for Button, this would only be an occasional bit of fun. A full-time world rally or rallycross programme is not of interest to him.
McLaren are now trying to engineer a 2016 F1 seat at Manor Marussia for Vandoorne, who is dominating the GP2 championship this season.