AUGUST 10, 2004
Button - blowing away the smokescreens
There has been a lot of weird and wonderful talk about what has been going on between Jenson Button, Williams and BAR and it is worth taking a look at the issues involved in an effort to throw some light on the likely development and outcome of the situation.
Williams says it has a contract with Button for 2005 and 2006. That contract is currently being prepared by the lawyers involved and will go to the Contract Recognition Board (CRB) within a matter of days. A letter stating that Williams has taken up its long-standing option for Jenson's services has already been sent to the CRB. This option has been in place since the end of 2000 and was registered with the CRB at the end of 2002.
The Contract Recognition Board is a body of independent lawyers with whom all F1 contracts are lodged. They are empowered by the signatories of the Concorde Agreement to decide if a contract is binding or not. It is worth noting that the contracts are lodged in sealed envelopes to which are attached letters stating the duration of the contract and the various options that are involved. If there is a dispute over the details of a contract these can be opened.
The option letter and the Williams contract will create a situation in which the CRB is faced with conflicting documents and that will mean that the CRB will then try to rule on which contract is valid. If however there is a question relating to the legal validity of options, it is possible that the board will rule that it is not competent to make a judgement and then there will need to be an English law suit to establish which contract is valid. This would probably not take place until September or October.
As far as we can understand the issue is whether the wording in the Honda documents that were shown to Jenson Button and his management by BAR is sufficiently strong to meet a clause in the BAR option document. This is there to ensure that the team had the best possible engine available for Button. Such clauses are not unusual in modern F1 contracts because of the way in which a change of engine can affect a driver's career.
BAR contends that the documents it has from Honda more than meet the clause in Button's contract; while the Button and Williams camp argue that the documents are not sufficient to meet the terms of the option.
David Richards, the boss of BAR, is seeing the whole dispute as being a battle between structure and chaos and wants other team bosses to support him in the fight. Williams argues that it did not initiate the Button contract and merely took an opportunity which presented itself and which legally seems to be fine. Both sides appear to have QCs arguing that they have a good case and ultimately the case will be decided on the paperwork.
There is an underlying subtext in all of this because it is clear from talking to those involved that there was (and perhaps still is) considerable tension over the issue of bonuses which may or may not have been due to Button this year. The actual outcome of this disagreement is only relevant in that it explains why Button might have wanted to leave BAR. Given that such deals usually involve payments of $50,000 a point and Button has scored 61 points this year, it is easy to see how there might be discontent as it could be that up to $3m is involved.
The first thing, therefore, will be to wait for a ruling from the CRB about whether or not it is competent to rule on the issue of taking up options or whether this must go to court in England.
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