Features - Straight Talk
SEPTEMBER 5, 2016
McLaren's insurance policy
BY LUIS VASCONCELOS
Ron Dennis, never one to shy away from the public eye and a man with a penchant for strong statements, called McLaren's decision to keep Jenson Button on their books, for another two years, an innovative three-driver strategy. Speaking to a lot of paddock old hands on Sunday morning, hours before the start of the Italian Grand Prix, all I heard were people speaking about McLaren keeping the 2009 World Champion as an insurance policy for an eventual departure by Fernando Alonso.
Dennis strenuously denied this was the case, explaining that, "this is not designed to be an insurance policy on anything - it is designed to be an innovative strategy for our driver line-up for next year, which is what it is and beyond." But the more one thinks about it, the more it becomes clear the only reason for McLaren-Honda to keep Jenson Button on their payroll is to have a good, solid pair of hands available if it will suddenly require another driver to go and race for them at some point during 2017 or 2018.
Much as everyone believes McLaren-Honda is on the way up and will be far more competitive in 2017 than this year, it's clear the team is not yet an attractive proposition for most top drivers. Hamilton and Rosberg are committed to Mercedes for another two years, Vettel has one more season on his contract with Ferrari and has vowed to stay at Maranello until he gets the title he so much wants, Ricciardo and Verstappen have long-term contracts with Red Bull too, so the list of drivers that could lead McLaren-Honda at short notice is rather small.
A young and quick driver like Valtteri Bottas could be the man for the job but he doesn't seem to be on McLaren's radar and neither are the two Force India boys - Perez had an unfortunate adventure at McLaren not so many years ago, and Hulkenberg remains one of Formula One's mysteries for having never really getting the chance to drive a winning car.
Add to that the fact McLaren doesn't really have an up-and-coming driver in the Young Drivers' Program ready to step into Formula One anytime soon - Nick de Vries, 21 years old, from Holland, is on his first GP3 season, with ART and won his first race of the year on Sunday in Monza - and it becomes increasingly clear that the Woking-based could find itself in a bit of a pickle should Fernando Alonso decide to call it quits at any time during the next 24 months.
Before the hordes of Alonso's fans react to that last sentence, let's make one thing absolutely clear: the possibility of Button being kept on board by McLaren-Honda to step in quickly should Stoffel Vandoorne fail to deliver on his first Formula One season is a non-starter, for two basic reasons.
First of all, no one in their right mind doubts the Belgian driver has all it takes to make an impact in Formula One, as he quickly showed in Bahrain, a few months ago, when he arrived at the very last minute to stand-in for the injured Alonso. In between his duties in Super Formula, Vandoorne out-qualified and outraced Jenson Button to score the team's first point of the season. That, with the right preparation, including four days of running in winter testing, he would fail to deliver is not foreseeable. And even if he did fluff his chance, why would McLaren get Button to pair up with Alonso, when there were plenty of youngsters available that could be given a chance to show their worth, while Dennis would be out looking for a permanent solution.
Button returning to Grand Prix racing will only happen - with the exception of need to replace an injured colleague - if Fernando Alonso throws in the towel. Period.
But why would that happen? First of all, because for the last few months the Spaniard has repeated the same phrase: "Even if I win next year's championship, if the 2017 cars are not exciting to drive, I'll quit Formula One and will go and race somewhere else."
No team, even with a valid contract in the hands of their lawyers, would listen to this kind of message day in day out without taking precautions, so what McLaren has just announced is a logical step, even if it gives away the fact the team is no longer an attractive prospect for the top drivers.
And maybe, just maybe, in the back of his mind Ron Dennis still recalls the very unpleasant experience, for all involved, that was Alonso's first stint at McLaren, when what had started like a marriage made in heaven quickly turned into a marriage made in hell. From an easily achievable double title, McLaren ended up losing the drivers' title to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and was disqualified from the constructors' classification as a consequence of the infamous Stepney-gate.
Better safe than sorry, so nothing wrong with what McLaren is doing. But that keeping Button onboard for another two years is, basically, an insurance policy I guess there's no doubt about it.