Jenson Button isn’t like the rest of them.
Fernando Alonso would happily sacrifice an arm for a third world title, as he revealed to Sky Sports in Abu Dhabi last year. Sebastian Vettel is possessed by the need to scoop together as many accolades as possible, no matter how significant. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, is petrified by the thought of ending his Formula One career with just a solitary world championship to his name.
Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton all live with the intense desire to constantly reinforce their superiority. Each race is not viewed as an opportunity to win or merely get points on the board but to prove their talents not only to us onlookers or their team bosses but themselves. That need for more, that desperation to rub it in, is arguably what makes them the three standout drivers on the grid.
But Jenson? He’s more than comfortable with his one world title. His name will stand beside Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher and, indeed, Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton forevermore. Nobody can take that away from him. He has nothing more to prove.
Button’s outlook reflects his driving style: smooth and calm. No stress, no rush. His self-assurance is comforting in a sport rife with impatience, control freaks and power struggles.
The problem for Button, though—after a winter of change at McLaren—is that his new boss is an impatient control freak who has recently emerged victorious from a power struggle.
Ron Dennis’ return to the helm at McLaren represents a change of mindset for the perennial underachievers, with the comfort that Button personifies replaced by a renewed hunger and momentum—the sort of hunger and momentum that is more reminiscent of an Alonso-type figure than Button.
And although Button has been a tremendous servant of McLaren since arriving at the team at the beginning of 2010, are we now at a stage where he no longer aligns with the team’s philosophy?
Dennis, after all, always wants more. His all-world champion pairings of Niki Lauda and Prost and then Prost and Senna in the 1980s—not to mention his partnering of Alonso and Hamilton and then Hamilton and Button in this century—are a reflection of a leader that thrives on tension and views challenging situations as opportunities to showcase his managerial expertise.
The decision to replace Sergio Perez with Kevin Magnussen for 2014 was partly inspired by the theory that Button requires a naturally faster driver on the other side of the garage in order to react and perform at his own peak—a damning verdict of Button’s own pace as well as his ability to lead the team by example on the track.
The loss of Perez, the safety net, alone made Button’s job security immediately more vulnerable, while McLaren would not have hired Magnussen unless the team intended to persevere with the 21-year-old Dane, a graduate of McLaren's young driver development scheme, and mould him into championship-winning material, as it did with Hamilton in 2007.
And should Magnussen, the rookie, outperform his world champion teammate in 2014, a notion that is far from impossible, there would be little reason for retaining the services of Button, whose contract may expire at the end of the season, at the expense of, say, Nico Hulkenberg, the Force India driver, or Williams youngster Valtteri Bottas—and that’s before you consider the potential availability of Alonso, although talk of a McLaren return for the Spaniard has rather tellingly disappeared following Dennis’ return to power.
Button’s history with Japan and Honda, the manufacturer for whom he drove in F1 between 2006 and 2008, is a factor that could work in his favour when Honda becomes McLaren’s powertrain supplier at the beginning of next year, with the 2009 world champion an ideal candidate to adopt something of an ambassadorial role between team and engine partner in a similar way to how Senna once did.
However, Honda’s desire to sign Alonso, as reported by motorsport.com last October, implies the presence of Button, who last year told Sky Sports of his desire to finish his career with McLaren, would not be crucial to the engine supplier’s plans.
The loss of his father, John—possibly the most influential parent in sport alongside Judy Murray, mother of Andy—in January had a major impact on Button, who has thrived upon the support provided by his entourage of Button Sr., girlfriend Jessica Michibata and Michael Collier, his physiotherapist, since rising to the top of the sport.
That his engagement to Michibata became public knowledge just over a month after his father’s death suggests that Button, now 34 and the most experienced driver on the current grid, is approaching the point of his career—as all sportsmen do in their mid-30s, especially in a sport as risky as F1—where his profession is starting to become secondary to family matters and perhaps even alternative interests.
Button’s admission to The Telegraph at the launch of the MP4-29, McLaren’s 2014 car, that he considered walking away from Formula One following the loss of his father means the seed has already been planted in his mind. And once the thought of the R-word exists, it is notoriously difficult to silence.
Whether 2014 does prove to be the last in Button’s 15-year F1 career, and whether he simply walks away or becomes a victim of Ron’s restructuring, remains to be seen.
But you wouldn’t be surprised if Button, like his friend Mark Webber did a year ago, will have already made a decision—whatever that is—by the time he climbs into his car on the grid in Melbourne next weekend.
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