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Why the Retirements of Jenson Button and Felipe Massa Are Actually Good for F1

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2016

Jenson Button and Felipe Massa joke around before the Italian Grand Prix.
Jenson Button and Felipe Massa joke around before the Italian Grand Prix.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, two of the most likeable and popular drivers in Formula One, announced their upcoming retirements over the Italian Grand Prix weekend (although Button claims his is not an actual retirement—we'll see).

For fans of the sport, it will be like saying goodbye to old friends. Button is the third-most experienced driver in F1 history, with 298 grand prix starts on his resume, and Massa has amassed 243 to rank ninth on the list.

However, this is the perfect time for both men to go, and their retirements should be seen in a positive light, as they open up two race seats in competitive cars for younger drivers.

Button is 36 and Massa is 35; both are still competitive, but they are no longer at the peak of their driving abilities. Few athletes (steroid-fuelled baseball players excepted) get better as they approach the age of 40 and Massa, in particular, has not been the same since suffering a life-threatening accident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.

Jenson Button and Felipe Massa during qualifying for the 2016 Russian Grand Prix.
Jenson Button and Felipe Massa during qualifying for the 2016 Russian Grand Prix.Clive Mason/Getty Images

McLaren have already announced Stoffel Vandoorne as Button's replacement. The 2015 GP2 champion has already proved he belongs in F1. Deputising for an injured Fernando Alonso at this year's Bahrain Grand Prix, he outqualified Button and finished 10th in the race, scoring McLaren's first point of the season.

The 24-year-old's full-time arrival in F1 adds to the growing list of exciting young drivers in the sport that includes the likes of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Pascal Wehrlein. And if he lives up to the potential he showed in his junior career, the Belgian will form a natural rival for Red Bull prodigy Max Verstappen.

Verstappen was the catalyst for a much-hyped Dutch invasion at last month's Belgian Grand Prix, so imagine the crowds next summer if Vandoorne brings out an additional horde of his countrymen.

Vandoorne's promotion is also a positive sign for the GP2 series, which looked increasingly irrelevant as its 2012 and 2013 champions, Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer, failed to secure F1 drives.

However, Jolyon Palmer, who beat Vandoorne for the 2014 GP2, made his F1 debut with Renault this year, and now Vandoorne has a full-time seat for 2016.

Stoffel Vandoorne at the 2016 Belgian Grand Prix.
Stoffel Vandoorne at the 2016 Belgian Grand Prix.Charles Coates/Getty Images

The fate of Massa's vacant Williams seat is even more intriguing, as the team does not have an obvious replacement ready.

Alex Lynn is the team's development driver, but he is sitting eighth in the GP2 standings and may not be ready for a big promotion. Among current F1 drivers, Sergio Perez and Felipe Nasr have been touted as potential replacements, as reported by longtime F1 journalist James Allen.

Both drivers bring significant sponsorship dollars with them, but deputy team principal Claire Williams recently told ESPN F1's Nate Saunders that Williams are not interested in signing drivers "purely for financial reasons," but that "the pay-driver term is extremely negative because a driver can be a great talent but have that added benefit of bringing money, so of course us, as an independent team, when the sponsorship market is as it is currently, then of course that's a consideration for us."

Perez has the talent to go with his Mexican millions, but he might not be keen to jump ship from a known quantity at Force India, particularly as his team is challenging Williams for fourth place in the constructors' championship right now.

Nasr, meanwhile, performed well in 2015, but it has been difficult to judge him this year in a dreadful Sauber car. In the eight races both he and team-mate Marcus Ericsson have finished, the Swede finished ahead five times. The qualifying battle, though, is tilted slightly in Nasr's favoureight to six.

However, both Allen and Joe Saward, another well-connected journalist, have 17-year-old Lance Stroll as the favourite to replace Massa. In addition to leading the Formula Three championship, the Canadian is involved in Williams' driver development program.

Oh, and his father, Lawrence, is a billionaire (Forbes pegs his net worth at $2.4 billion).

F1i @F1icom

F3 championship leader Lance Stroll is in the frame for a Williams race seat in 2017 https://t.co/uvY4o8lisE #F1 https://t.co/gJBouLPk8a

Saward hinted that a deal to put the younger Stroll in a Williams race seat for next year could net the team a $25 million payment from the family coffers.

Stroll did have a somewhat bumpy introduction to F3 last year, culminating in a one-race ban for causing a collision, but mistakes are also part of young drivers finding the limits of their cars and their abilities.

With big changes coming to the F1 aerodynamic regulations next year, while engine performance continues to converge, there is an opportunity for a shakeup of the established running order from the past few seasons.

While Mercedes and Ferrari look set to continue with their veteran driver pairings, Verstappen at Red Bull, Vandoorne at McLaren and possibly Stroll at Williams could all be fresh faces near the front of the grid.

And that does not even take into consideration whomever Renault, Haas, Toro Rosso, Manor and Sauber decide to sign.

Button and Massa will be missed, but their retirements were necessary to open the door to a new generation of talent. So far, the future appears to be in good hands.

      

Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICEFourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter:

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