** Since this article was written, Honda has unexpectedly announced its complete withdrawal from F1. For the latest stories on this subject, please click here.
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Every year in F1 it’s a toss-up exactly how early speculation about the drivers’ market will get going. And this year, with several factors making things much more lively and unpredictable than in 2007, it’s happening very early indeed.
It’s difficult to know how much weight to give to the rumours – and, indeed, things had been looking fairly stable for the British drivers on whom we tend to focus.
Hamilton is one of the least likely men in the paddock to change teams while Coulthard’s more likely than not to retire. It’s hard to see Anthony Davidson’s way back to a race drive at present, while Mike Conway’s probably got a bit more work to do before he gets his big break.
Gary Paffett is 99.9 per cent likely to stick with his McLaren testing role, all other things being equal, otherwise he’d probably defect completely to DTM.
The glaring omission from this list is Jenson Button. At the beginning of the season, with the arrival of Ross Brawn as team principal, the priority down at Brackley seemed to be steadying the ship.
And, as the weeks have gone by, it has appeared to be working. The team’s public pronouncements are cautiously optimistic and it was acknowledged from the beginning of Brawn’s tenure that recovery and race successes would be some time in coming.
However, we wrote a piece back in January in which we said we though 2008 would be the crunch year for Button.
He’s personable, he’s widely acknowledged as one of the best technical drivers in F1, he’s also one of the fittest and he puts in the time with his engineers to understand the car. But somehow this never seems to translate into hard results.
And, we speculated, with the arrival of Ross Brawn at Honda he might have his work cut out to protect his increasingly desirable Honda drive from ambitious and opportunist colleagues.
It’s entirely possible that, just seven races into the season, he has already failed to do enough to defend his corner next year.
His 2004 attempt to jump ship to Williams notwithstanding, it might be argued that Button subsequently showed considerable loyalty to Honda, sticking with the team through some very rough patches.
And here’s the evidence that Honda may not show any loyalty to him. Nick Fry, Honda’s unlovely CEO, has reportedly openly declared he will take the best the market can throw his way.
He told GP Week magazine: “We’re open-minded at the moment and our drivers are aware of that. Obviously when you have a team principal and technical guru like Ross in the team, we become possibly even more attractive than we were before and the change in the regulations for next year gives teams like us a big opportunity.
“Hopefully we can take advantage of that. At the moment we’re not short of offers.”
Both Honda drivers are out of contract at the end of the year and we rate Rubens Barrichello’s chances of staying at Honda as considerably worse than DC’s of securing another stint at Red Bull. And if Rubinho at the sunset of his career can score points in the RA108 then Button is sure as hell going to have to as well.
As in 2007, the restless Fernando Alonso’s search for a team where he feels his genius can be truly appreciated seems to be the engine driving things.
Add to that speculation about Kimi Raikkonen’s commitment to the sport, Felipe Massa’s future with Ferrari and a big question mark over whether BMW can keep hold of Robert Kubica.
Things are already alarmingly volatile. It is possible that this volatility is going to make make life very difficult for Jenson Button.
But, to play devil’s advocate for a second: nine seasons in F1 and one win, three pole positions, 15 podiums and 232 points. He’s never set a fastest lap.
Does he actually deserve to keep his Honda drive for another year?