Jenson Button walks to his McLaren ahead of the Italian GP
Jenson Button has signed a two-year deal with McLaren that'll see him step down from a race drive next year; he could return in 2018It was a seismic weekend for Formula 1 at Monza, the grandest grand prix circuit of them all.
First we learned that Williams driver Felipe Massa, a wonderful servant of the sport and a warrior to boot, was set to hang up both of them at the year’s end.
Then we found out on Saturday that Jenson Button, one of Britain’s greatest drivers, may well be following the diminutive Brazilian on to that deck-chaired balcony reserved for retired F1 types. Then it emerged that that the guy that provides the ship they all sail on, Bernie Ecclestone, might be joining them!
Whatever the outcome of the now near certain sale of the sport by current majority shareholders’ CVC in the near future, the circumstances of which currently remain clouded in conjecture, the sport will look very different in 2017 - though it’s hard to believe Ecclestone won’t have some say in it.
But, almost certainly when the chequered flag falls on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix season finale in November, Button will have undertaken 305 starts - the third highest of any driver - behind two of his contemporaries; Rubens Barrichello (322) and Michael Schumacher (306). And the Briton, who is 36, would be even higher in the list than the seven-time world champion, but for the two Monaco Grands Prix he missed in 2003 (through injury, following a heavy crash in practice), and 2005 (when his team BAR-Honda was given a race ban for a rules infraction). Those, by the way, were the only two races Button has missed since he made his debut for Williams in the 2000 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
That is an extraordinary level of longevity by any measure for this game.
The fact that it feels like this may be a year or two too soon for him to be calling it quits, says as much for his enduring youthfullness - which can be put down in part to the fitness borne from his triathalon addiction - as it does for his deep volume of talent. It’s probably also the reason he’s kept some caveats in place too.
A wonderfully opportunistic racer, with a deft touch derived from a classical, near-perfect driving style in the mould of a Prost or a Clark, Button should probably possess more than the one world title, 15 wins and the eight pole positions than he currently does in the top flight. But it’s possible that it is the unusually high level of adversity (#being-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time) that has stoked an up-to-this-point unquentiable fire and sharp competitive level over the years - not that his bulletproof mindset would ever admit as much.
At least four times in his F1 career Button has been forced to run the gauntlet of the summer silly-season without being certain of his fate, and three times he’s had to do it since he’s been racing for McLaren, waiting to see if he is going to be replaced by a younger, less decorated driver. He has always done this with grace. And tellingly, with a fiercely determined in-cockpit response.
Jenson had to wait nine long years to get in title-winning machinery, and even then after coming agonisingly close to F1 oblivion. Having shown admirable loyalty to both Honda and the Brackley-based former-BAR team that ran the factory Honda effort (which is now Mercedes-Benz!) as its competitiveness degraded embarrassingly through 2007 and ’08. He was then left high-and-dry when the Japanese car-maker pulled the plug in the winter of 2008.
It was only when Ross Brawn (and others) stepped in and saved the programme, thus unleashing the Brawn BGP 001 that Honda had been developing through the previous year, that Button got the chance, finally, to show the world he was a world-beater.
He switched to McLaren on the back of the title he won in 2009, but again has in recent years had to manage uncompetitive machinery as time, that most irrepressable, unreplacable, of gifts, burned wistfully and mercilessly away.
Now, faced in his mid-30s with the chance to find out what else he must do with that time, but also accepting that to do this he must forsake the only professional constant he has ever really known as an adult, Button has struck a wily deal with McLaren chief Ron Dennis.
On Saturday last, he announced a two-year extension to his McLaren association that will see him remain an ambassador, but step back from a race seat in 2017 in place of Stoffel Vandoorne. But… with the option to come back in 2018 if Fernando Alonso switches teams or quits at the end of his own three-year. So a sabbatical with some security. A soft exit.
Not entirely a unique deal either for McLaren has granted sabbaticals of this nature before, but in the case of Mika Häkkinen it became permanent. Button wouldn’t be the first champion to end his racing days at McLaren - he joins Nigel Mansell, Keke Rosberg and Niki Rosberg on that particular list.
Only time will measure how JB will stand in the pantheon of F1 champions, and while it would be big call to place him in the short list of all-time greats, it’s also true that he should, given the right machinery, probably have been a multiple world champion. Perhaps the biggest accolade of all is that two of the fastest there have ever been, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, both site him as the best they have ever worked with. On his day no-one was, indeed, still is faster.
But things move on quickly in F1 and even the greats like Prost and Schumacher’s absence post-retirement quickly became the norm.
What we can look forward to now is the emergence of Vandoorne, a possessor of enormous potential by all available evidence, going at it against the rest of the new breed Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein… And if I was Williams, and I didn’t need sponsorship dollars, I might be tempted by either of the last two as a replacement for Massa.
That would be fun wouldn’t it?