Why Jenson was right to move

The web of late has been flooded with stories and opinions as to why Jenson Button’s decision to walk away from Mercedes (Brawn) and leap two-footed into the apparent career quicksand of partnering Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, is a foolish one.

My good friend and colleague Adam Hay-Nicholls wrote a really good piece about it on his blog, which I can recommend as top reading as he makes some thought-provoking points.

Click here to read Adam’s piece on the Metro F1 website.

See, told you it was interesting.

As for me, however, I’m not so convinced that JB’s move is as bad an idea as everyone is making out.

Since the mid-point of the 2009 season, when it started to look as though Jenson had taken his foot off the gas and was backing into the championship, he’s had some pretty fierce critics. There have been many who have claimed that he’s not a worthy champion, that he’ll never go down as one of the true greats. Frankly I find that argument a little hard to swallow. I mean, Keke Rosberg won the title with a single win to his name in his championship year, and the guy’s a legend.

Does it really matter how one wins the title, or merely that one does it at all? I personally think Jenson is a great champion, and his story in overcoming the obstacles of his career in many ways make him even more worthy. To come back from so many blows and to see that childhood dream become reality, after all of those earth-shattering moments when the prospect of becoming world champion must have seemed a world away, takes something special.

So here we have a champion, but one whose ultimate talent is being questioned because he was given the best car of 2009 and made the championship look far harder than it should have been.

What better move to make, then, than to put himself up against one of the out-and-out fastest and most competitive racing drivers not just in F1, but the world today? Not only does it show that Jenson’s not afraid to take on anybody, but it also shows he has the self-belief in his own abilities that he can go to McLaren, which is quite clearly Lewis’ team, and beat him on his own turf.

As world champion, there may never be another time in Button’s career at which his star shines as bright, nor at which his reputation is as vast as it is today. Don’t forget that 12 months ago Jenson was staring unemployment in the face. And now he has signed a three-year deal to race for McLaren, a team whose history and record in Formula 1 is second only to Ferrari.

Would you let that opportunity slip? I mean, come on… it’s McLaren. And the boys at Woking do not come knocking every day.

So what do you get at McLaren? A damn good car is a given.

Even in 2009, a car which started off the season as a dog was, by the mid-point of the campaign, winning races. The resources, talent-pool and simple desire to win at the team is staggering. Button could not wish to place himself at the centre of an outfit more tuned towards the objective of winning. That hunger, that competitive instinct, can only be of benefit to the reigning champ.

Plus, in 2010, McLaren will, for the first time in a decade, be its own team. With Mercedes no longer on the board following its 75.1% purchase of Brawn, McLaren is McLaren once more. That most British of teams will, in some ways, get some of its soul back.

While one must hope that the team will still be afforded the incredible reliability which marked out their joint relationship, it is fair to say that Mercedes’ focus will now be on the former Brawn team, and this could play against McLaren. However in 2009 Mercedes showed that, despite its ties with McLaren, it was perfectly able to supply another two teams with good enough equipment to see Brawn take the title and Force India emerge as the surprise package of the season.

Jenson therefore will have a quality car and be up against quality opposition. Sounding good? You bet.
There’s another element, however, and it is one which I think is pretty crucial.

Jenson has been at BAR / Honda / Brawn (call it what you will) for over half a decade. The team in all that time, other than the men at the top, has changed very little. It’s only normal for the guy to want a change.

Plus, and here’s the clincher, this was Jenson’s first and only opportunity to get himself free of the bind that he was in at the team.

It is important to remember that Jenson’s career at BAR and Honda was framed by some pretty bad decisions. For a start his original management team lost a vast amount of his money via the scandal that erupted when they signed for Williams, only to be told by the Contract Recognition Board that they could not do so. Button was forced to stay at the team, and thereafter was essentially owned by them. His commercial rights were taken away from him, and his freedom to negotiate or to get himself out of the team disappeared.

It is thus interesting to read Nick Fry’s recent quotes, as the financial considerations are not as simple as he makes out.

“We offered loyalty which we hoped, perhaps naively, he would return,” Fry told the Daily Mirror. “There is bravery and there is stupidity, and we will only find out which it is next year.

“We believe we made Jenson a good offer – one that was significantly more than he is being paid at McLaren. We are all mystified by this decision. We think he has been badly advised and had his head turned by McLaren’s glitzy headquarters.”

Personally, I think Jenson’s head was turned by the opportunity of racing for one of the greatest teams in Formula 1 history. I think Jenson’s head was turned by an opportunity to put himself up against one of the best drivers in the sport today. Win or lose, nobody will be able to argue in the future that he hasn’t left himself open to scrutiny.

And when Fry refers to the financial aspect, he would do well to temper his statements with a touch of humility given that the Mercedes buy-out of the team has gifted him what has been estimated to be in the region of $30million. Considering that Button took a 70% paycut to help ensure the team’s future, Fry has a lot to thank Jenson for. Actually he has about 30 million reasons to be thankful to him.

Jenson meanwhile may not be getting as high a base salary from McLaren as he might have been offered at Brawn, but he is finally free from the constraints which held him at Honda. His relationship with Fry was known to have become stretched, the forced smiles at times a touch too saccharin to really believe.

For Jenson therefore, I believe this move to McLaren will also come as something of a relief.

While he will not like to be leaving his boys, and in particular Andrew Shovlin his long time engineer and bezzie mate, Jenson has had to make a clean break.

There are times in everyone’s lives where the relationships in which they find themselves stop giving back what they once did. The weight of history is often too great to overlook, and no matter how great things might be at the time there may always be a niggling doubt of what could be achieved elsewhere.

I think that is ultimately where Jenson is at right now. His relationship with the team that he has seen through three different incarnations is simply at an end.

He needs a new environment, a new relationship. He needs a new challenge, and the excitement that comes along with something different.

I think Jenson’s move to McLaren is the first thing that has really made sense in his career in a good many years. Of course, I wish him luck. He may need it for 2010 as it could yet be, competitively, the toughest season of his F1 career.

But he is taking his opportunity by the balls, and I cannot help but admire him for that.