So, we’ve all heard by now how Jenson Button and Brawn GP are busy failing to agree terms for 2010, despite having forged a winning partnership that took both drivers’ and constructors’ championships from a standing start.
And the news gave us a terrible sense of deja vu. After all, it’s hardly the first time Button’s experienced problems in this department, is it?
In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that, until he pitched up at Brawn GP, the ability to get himself smoothly placed with a decent team has been one of his biggest career weaknesses.
Jenson’s driving style is well-known as one of the smoothest on the F1 grid. It’s a pity that the management side of things hasn’t always had the same reputation.
Here’s a reminder of some of the twists and turns his career has taken in the past as contract negotiations have gone awry:
- In 2000 Button tested for Prost and McLaren. But when Alex Zanardi’s seat at Williams became available, Sir Frank gave both him and Bruno Junqueira a shot at it. Button came out on top and translated it into an assured eight-place finish in that year’s drivers’ championship. This cemented his relationship with the Grove-based team.
- However in 2001 Williams lent Button out to Benetton (which was just about to be rebranded as the Renault in-house team). He had a dreadful year with a car that always seemed to be a developmental step behind everyone else’s but did enough to ensure himself a seat for 2002. He remained contracted to Williams throughout this period.
- In 2003 Renault’s Flavio Briatore took his famous decision to replace Button with test driver Fernando Alonso, saying: “History will prove me right.” And you cannot deny that the man had a point, even if history subsequently proved him wrong on the issue about Button being as racy as a bollard. One of his publicly-stated reasons was: “Too many contracts, too many things in the background.”
- Out of contention at Renault, Button took himself off to British American Racing (remember them?) as a team-mate to temperamental world champion Jacques Villeneuve. But he had maintained his behind-the-scenes relationship with Williams, as would soon become clear. In 2004 the Honda-powered team had a blinding season and finished second in the constructors’ championship. However Button was not in a position to sign with them for 2005 since he was contracted to move into a Williams race seat for the next two years.
- This marked the start of an ugly legal dispute, with both BAR and Williams claiming they had the moral right to his services for this season. The The FIA’s Contract Recognition Board was called in to arbitrate and it awarded him to BAR. More pain was piled on after scrutineers at the San Marino Grand Prix found a problem with both BAR cars’ fuel tanks which led to the team being disqualified for two races. This looked to be a low point in Button’s F1 career.
- As the driver market started to heat up towards the end of the season Button found himself in hot water yet again. Now, with the second half of the season showing BAR to be strong contenders, he expressed a preference to stay where he was rather than return to the fading Williams. BAR is believed to have bought out his contract for around £20 million.
- In 2006 BAR was reinvented as the Honda works team. This was the start of two grim years for Button and team-mate Rubens Barrichello as it consistently failed to develop an effective car, despite occasional flashes of performance that just served to make the situation more frustrating. Button took his first win at the Hungaroring in 2006 but was unable to repeat the feat until his championship-winning 2009 season, with fan interest during this period focusing heavily on Lewis Hamilton at Button’s expense.
- In December 2008 Honda abruptly announced its withdrawal from Formula One. Button rallied round chief technical officer Ross Brawn’s March 2009 bid to stage a buy-out by giving up half his salary plus bonuses and agreeing to pay many of his own expenses – seemingly an issue at the heart of the present roadblock. The 2009 season was a fairytale success for Button, Brawn and all at Brackley with the team taking an unprecedented first drivers’ and constructors’ championship in its first year of operation.
- But the champagne was barely dry on the Interlagos podium before the old familiar problems were appearing once again. The question of where Button would be driving in 2010 was asked with increasing intensity and it became clear that a smooth contractual transition was not going to take place. Remuneration seems to be at the core of the argument, with Button perhaps understandably keen to up the numbers a bit. The waters were muddied even further when McLaren appeared to be in talks with Button, only to publicly distance themselves at the suggestion that they might be being used as a bargaining tool.
And that’s where we are now. Most of the F1 world seems sure that Button will eventually sign on the dotted line at Brawn GP, and that it will be the right thing for him and the team when he does.
But, given the history of contract problems in Jenson’s past, we’ll feel a lot happier when the deal is finally done, and we imagine most of his fans will feel the same.