Mercedes want to keep world champion Jenson Button as one of their drivers after taking over the Brawn GP team. The German manufacturer insisted yesterday that contrary to speculation, the Oxfordshire-based team will remain "international" in make-up. Whether they will retain Button's services, however, depends on the Englishman being prepared to accept considerably less than the annual salary of £7m he is currently demanding.
Having been paid around £3.5m last season, Button believes his wages should be increased to around twice that amount, but Brawn GP chief executive Nick Fry made it clear the takeover did not mean the team could now afford to meet his demands. "I hope Jenson will be with us next season, we succeeded together last season and we want him to be here, but we have to recognise F1 is not divorced from the rest of the [economic] world," Fry said. "We succeeded by competing within our means and we'll continue to do the same."
Having bought a majority shareholding in Brawn's team, Mercedes had been thought to be keen to field two German drivers next season, with Nick Heidfeld, formerly with BMW, the favourite to join Nico Rosberg. But a Mercedes spokesman said the company wanted to be seen as an international team. "Mercedes is a global brand, we sell cars all over the world, and the important thing for us to have the best driver line-up," the source said. "One German driver would be good, but even that isn't a prerequisite."
Initially, the takeover seemed certain to result in Button joining Lewis Hamilton at McLaren. Talks between Button and Brawn about renewing his contract had stalled, with basic salary the sticking point. At the start of last season, when Honda's late withdrawal left the team in danger of going under, Button agreed a reduction from £8m. Brawn is believed to have offered £4m, but with the freedom to sign personal sponsorship deals – that would not be available at McLaren, which would pay a higher basic wage, but where team sponsors always take priority.
Last Friday Button and his manager, Richard Goddard, toured McLaren's headquarters and made sure everyone, including Brawn, knew about it. But Button is aware he would find it hard to step into a team used to working with Hamilton and be immediately competitive.
Button must also know that while principal sponsor Vodafone may be keen on an all British line-up, there remains an influential body of opinion at McLaren that doubts his ability, and would prefer to have Kimi Raikkonen back alongside Hamilton.
There has even been a suggestion that McLaren held talks with Button as a warning to Hamilton's father and manager, Anthony, not to try to renegotiate his son's existing £50m contract, which still has three years to run. Ross Brawn, however, has no such doubts, and has always remained optimistic Button would stay.
Button is not in a particularly strong position. Financially Formula One has been hit as hard, if not harder, than many sports; it is unlikely, for example, Goddard could secure his client a series of personal endorsements remotely similar to the £10m deal Hamilton agreed with Reebok after becoming world champion last year.
Moreover, the withdrawal of BMW and Toyota means several good drivers are available, including Heidfeld and another promising young German, Timo Glock.
Only Ferrari appear unaffected by recession; the Italian team will pay Fernando Alonso £19m to drive for them alongside Felipe Massa next season, and are also paying Raikkonen around £13m to do nothing, although that drops to a mere £9m if the Finn signs up for another team.
Q&A: Why has Ross Brawn sold to Mercedes? And what will the new deal mean on the track?
* Why have Brawn GP, having won the drivers' and constructors' world championships in their first and it seems only season, taken Mercedes' marks?
Aside from lifting any personal financial pressure, it means the team can continue to compete.
The fact is they were both brilliant and lucky last season, designing a part – the infamous double diffuser – which gave them a huge advantage in the early races, but which many teams believed was illegal.
By the time the FIA decided it wasn't, they were too far ahead to be caught. Next season they might have struggled against teams with much bigger budgets, but this deal should give them enough financial firepower to be competitive. And you mean euros.
*So Button would be well advised to stay put, right?
Right, according to most experts. McLaren finished last season strongly, and if they really want him they can pay more, but that's a big "if". Button has earned more than £30m from Formula One in salary, and maintains it's no longer about money. And besides, Hamilton might give him a metaphorical shoeing.
*There isn't a chance he might end up without a drive at all, is there?
A very small one, and only if he overplays his hand.
*What's the likeliest outcome?
Button and Rosberg at Mercedes, Hamilton and Raikkonen at McLaren. But you never know until the contracts are signed.
*Does any of this mean the racing will be any better?
No. F1 remains more interesting for what goes on off the track. The only races worth watching will still be at Silverstone, Spa, Monza, and Sao Paulo. And Monaco for the scenery.
*Silverstone? Is it on, then?
If somebody can find the multi-billionaire Bernie Ecclestone another million or two. Heaven knows, he needs the money.
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