AUGUST 3, 2005

Button - the full story

Jenson Button and his management have made a pig's ear of things in recent days over the question of whether or not the British youngster will move from BAR Honda to Williams in 2006. There had been hints before the German Grand Prix on July 24 that Button was not happy with the fact that BAR Honda had not scored sufficient points to take up its option and thus Williams had first call on his services for 2006.

For reasons that are unclear, it was decided that Jenson's discontent should be turned into a public issue. It served no obvious purpose to do this but the intention appears to have been to make the public knowledge part of the negotiating process by painting Williams as the villains, holding back a promising young career (although with nearly 100 races behind him, Button is approaching F1 middle age). Alas, giving details to selected UK pressmen stirred up a storm of discontent amongst other British reporters, because they were left without the biggest story of the year about the national hero and they were not happy about it. Having made a mess of that, Button and his people then had to face a very public response from Sir Frank Williams, who made it eminently clear to the press (all of them) that it was a question of honour and that he will keep Jenson to his agreement for 2006.

Button issued a statement to some of the F1 media on Monday (obviously Button's management need a better mailing list) in which Jenson sought to justify his position, explaining that there was a face to face meeting with Williams on July 12 at which he told the team that he did not want to drive for them in 2006.

Be that as it may, Williams considers there to be a contract between the two parties. Button says that the crux of the matter is two documents dating from August 2004 and September 2004 and he is questioning their validity. Button also says that payments made by Williams in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 were not for an option but rather payments made by Williams in exchange for Jenson agreeing not to enforce a contract which he had entitling him to drive for Williams. This is odd because when Button signed for Williams in 2000, as a teenager straight out of Formula 3, there was no logic in the team agreeing to give him options for the future, as they held all the cards at the negotiating table.

The legal details are one thing but they do not address the bigger issue in all of this: Button's credibility. A year ago he wanted to leave BAR to join Williams. He was forced by the Contract Recognition Board in October 2004 to stay with BAR for 2005, the judges concluding that BAR had a marginally better case than Williams. At the time the judges were highly critical of Button's management. The management was later changed but, extraordinarily, the problem has now revived itself, albeit in reverse, with Button wanting to stay at BAR and not go to Williams.

While one can understand a driver's desire to be in a competitive car, it is part of the F1 game to be in the right place at the right time. Often that involves an element of risk and there have been many careers ruined by bad choices, but this does not mean a driver can do deals and then change his mind when things do not look good. F1 would be chaos if things descended to that level and, at a time when the sport is looking for good publicity, Button's confusions serve no good purpose. Pushing ahead with his attempt to leave Williams is an option that is open to Jenson but he needs to be careful before starting down that road as teams in the future will not forget such flip-flopping and will write contracts accordingly. If Button makes the right choices and delivers the goods that will be fine, but if not he may find himself locked into prisons of his own making.