As the 2014 championship nears its end in the artificial confines of Abu Dhabi next week, to be won by either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, it is another silver seat that is provoking interest. At McLaren, it is as close to certain as we can get that Fernando Alonso, late of Ferrari, has a seat for next year in Woking. But who will partner him? Will it be incumbent Jenson Button or incumbent Kevin Magnussen?
Button has an awful lot going for him. He is vastly experienced and arguably the best driver in changing conditions. He has a preternatural feel for grip and a magisterial grasp of strategy and racecraft. He has seen it all, won a world championship. He has scored very nearly double the number of points of Magnussen. To boot, he is a team player; the consummate professional and PR representative that McLaren prize. He may also prove invaluable in the brave new Honda era – his mastery of Japanese cultural niceties, not to mention some of the language, will definitely come in useful.
So says just about everybody. But doesn’t it become tiresome when everyone thinks the same thing. It would be a pity to see Button go, but then…(deep breath)…
He’s not quick enough in qualifying (except for the last few races, where he seems to have mysteriously upped his game – I wonder if team bosses get as suspicious about a threatened driver’s upturn in performance as the cynics among us do). He doesn’t thrill. He looks positively pedestrian in combat. He can’t develop a car, and apparently has insurmountable issues with it if it understeers. At 35 he isn’t a man for the long-term future, as a new engine partnership will probably require.
Then there’s Alonso. Save wet-to-dry races, is there anything Button does that Alonso can’t do better? Even the British press defenders of Button would have to admit that they have marked similarities, with the obvious difference that Fernando is quantifiably a more rounded product. The argument is that it would be silly to have drivers with similar strengths in a team, particularly if one is usually bettered by the other.
On to Magnussen. He was brought into the limelight at the beginning of the season by McLaren and has had, by any standards, a respectable rookie season. He hasn’t set the world alight, which many at Woking were hoping he would, in the wake of Sergio Perez’s departure. But the raw speed certainly seems to be there and with experience he may yet flower.
It has been noted by many in the paddock that McLaren are in far greater need of a superior car than they are of a better driver line-up. But that truism belies the value of the input that drivers can have with the development of a car. You might not put Fernando Alonso at the top of the list in F1 for that skill (Nico Rosberg, on the other hand…). But Button’s shortcomings in that regard do not help his cause.
Ultimately, Jenson Button has been a credit to the sport. He has produced some truly great performances and will go down in the history books as another driver of subtle skill and controlled aggression from the United Kingdom. But the British press calls for his career to be extended for the sake of nostalgia rather than performance are misplaced. Do not think that Ron Dennis will heed them.