Have McLaren shot themselves in the foot or played a blinder?

Today world champion Jenson Button joined McLaren in a “multi-year” deal. He walks away from Brawn, shortly to be renamed Mercedes GP, to drive alongside compatriot Lewis Hamilton in a team which is divorcing the very same German carmaker. Common consensus is that the week’s events will turn out bad for both McLaren and Button. But what will effectively losing Merc and gaining Button mean for Woking?

The loss of Mercedes-Benz, or more specifically their high-level expertise and funding, is expected to hurt McLaren seriously in the coming years. They will no longer be first to receive the latest developments from Mercedes High Performance Engines, nor have powerplants exclusively designed for their chassis. Money is another issue. Mercedes have ploughed tens of millions into McLaren as more than equal partners since 1997. McLaren’s state-of-the-art facilities, including the McLaren Technology Centre, are not just the result of selling a lot of McLaren F1 road cars.

But Ron Dennis, the man who executes much of the high-level decision making in the McLaren family, hinted beautifully at why he had let Mercedes go earlier this week. “I’ve often stated that it’s my belief that, in order to survive and thrive in 21st-century Formula 1, a team must become much more than merely a team.

“That being the case, in order to develop and sustain the revenue streams required to compete and win grands prix and world championships, companies that run Formula 1 teams must broaden the scope of their commercial activities.”

Roughly translated from the famous Ronspeak, this means two things. The first, well-acknowledged, is that McLaren’s burgeoning road car enterprise is going to help with funding the team. It did not factor in with Mercedes’ plans; nor did the possibility that McLaren would end up being a direct competitor of Mercedes-Benz on the road, sit well with Stuttgart.

The second possibility that Ron has hinted at is that the era of manufacturers is drawing to an end. Such a scenario has already been worded by other top bosses, but this is the first time one of the really big fish has alluded to it. The phrase “more than a team” could insinuate that just having a lot of money does not win races and championships. The constant fear of parent company withdrawal hangs over those beholden to carmaker money, too. This is twenty-first century, post-recession F1 management from Dennis, and it is very interesting.

This has probably also been behind Jenson Button’s thinking this week. While the tabloids have spoken of money, and it probably did play a part, there is much more to Button’s decision than wonga. Button has learned, from years spent jumping ship from privateer to manufacturer, and eventually winning the title with a privateer, that an independent team is where he belongs. Note how he jumped ship just as Brawn effectively stopped being Brawn GP and became the Silver Arrows. It might be a forecast of the future of the car industry and F1 that will turn out to be wrong, but the world champion has cast his vote.

And go wrong it might well. He is opposite Lewis Hamilton, a man who is probably sick of reading how McLaren is built around him. But it is, from the leading development designed to suit Hamilton’s oversteery style, to the slick presentation and PR savoir faire. Button will have to fit in, and he is widely expected to struggle. But it is not difficult to envisage a Button who plays his part in the team once he knows he is second best. Button must know in his heart of hearts that Hamilton is simply quicker than he himself. When he acknowledges that, he will be the perfect number two.

McLaren, meanwhile, will probably continue to build extremely good racing cars.