While many analysts were beginning to guesstimate that Christmas could come before the McLaren driver saga drew to a close, the team have finally given their verdict – and it is pleasing news for Jenson Button’s army of fans. The Brit has retained his seat at the team, at the expense of Kevin Mganussen, who has been ousted to a reserve driver role. In regards to the worst kept secret of the season, Fernando Alonso was confirmed as Button’s teammate today and means that McLaren will field the oldest driver line-up in the sport next season – yet with 500 races and 47 wins between the duo, it promises to be a successful combination.
Button In, Magnussen Less So…
Evidently, McLaren have opted to pursue experience over potential. At a time when a new powertrain is inbound, this appears to be a simple decision to make, at least at face value. The fact that in Jenson Button, the team bestowed a driver with 15 race wins, 50 podiums and a World Championship title to his name, would have surely made this an even easier choice. However, regardless of what Button fans would declare, the choice was far from a simple one.
Kevin Magnussen has enjoyed a steady 2014 – the Dane has not been as spectacular as his surprising podium in the opening round would have implied, but he had demonstrated the type of potential which encouraged both Ron Dennis and Eric Boullier to continue their support of him. Kevin has looked particularly impressive in wheel-to-wheel combat. At times, he has unfortunately overstepped the boundary between what is spectacular and what is acceptable, with his thrilling dice with Fernando Alonso at Spa springing to mind, for which he received a totally-justified twenty second time penalty. However, dogged determination is what has defined Magnussen’s campaign.
In terms of raw speed, he has also fared well against his teammate. His qualifying performance in Germany stood out as a spectacular result, as the Dane notched a superlative P4, compared with a lackluster P12 for Jenson. The race may have seen him at the heart of an unfortunate collision with Felipe Massa at Turn 1, but Saturday’s result could not be forgotten. Where Kevin has struggled in 2014, is in race trim and his deficiencies on a Sunday have been exaggerated by Button’s stunning consistency – the Brit is famous for being an excellent points-scorer and in the MP4-29, Button enjoyed one of his best campaign’s in this regard. His performances on a Sunday were rarely anything less than the maximum.
Perhaps one of the biggest determining factors to create this disparity has been driving styles. It seems as though Button and Magnussen are a polarized as styles come. Jenson is the super-smooth operator, inputting subtle commands into the steering wheel and driving with a type of precision which ultimately hampers his one-lap ability. Meanwhile, Magnussen is visibly much more aggressive with his inputs, demanding much more from the car on turn-in and therefore, demanding much more from his tyres. As such, Kevin has been the better qualifier while Jenson has had the upper hand come race-day.
However, the argument that points make prizes, is far too simplistic here. 2015 is a year of change at Woking, as Honda re-enter the sport with a first generation powertrain. Immediately, they face an uphill struggle as they will face opposition from second generation powerunits, and McLaren have to begin to learn the fine details and subtleties of it – something which the competition completed a full twelve months ago. As such, experience is a factor which cannot be underestimated and Jenson’s finely tuned senses will unquestionably prove pivotal in a year when driver feedback is of particular importance. If Jenson fails to spot something, you can be sure that his opposite number will, and vice versa of course.
Burying The Hatchet
While it was Jenson Button making the headlines today, Fernando Alonso’s appointment to the team in which he faced serious turmoil in 2007 is just as intriguing. The intrigue has undoubtedly been quelled by the news being the worst kept secret in F1 for quite some time, but it is still a fascinating storyline to explore.
Without retelling the countless details, Alonso’s time at McLaren ended in acrimonious fashion – as acrimonious as it gets. The Spaniard was at loggarheads with Ron Dennis, as the former questioned his status in the team and seemed to use every trick in the book to win a position as the undisputed number one. As the championship neared its conclusion, the pair were no longer on speaking terms and both Alonso and that rookie teammate of his, missed out on the title after a resurgent Kimi Raikkonen took advantage of the McLaren drivers and bosses stepping on each others toes.
As such, the chances of Alonso returning to McLaren were somewhere between slim and none – particularly as Ron Dennis returned to the helm. However, it seems that the pair are now ready to bury the hatchet and move forward in a harmonious coalition. For both McLaren, Honda and Alonso himself, it is a good job they have.
The double World Champion may be moving into the autumn of his career, yet another sublime campaign behind the wheel of a decidedly average Ferrari has demonstrated that age has certainly not eroded any of his talents. In the right machinery, both he and Button have shown enough potential in the past 12 months to justify that that they can deliver a championship title.
However, delivering a championship is not on anyone’s mind as a goal for the immediate future at McLaren. This is a project and regardless of how effective the Honda powertrain is, the team as a whole need to overcome the fact that they are essentially twelve months behind the opposition. If they can win races in 2015, that will be an impressive achievement in itself, but to challenge the mighty Mercedes for the title would surely be a bridge too far.
Regardless, McLaren seem to have made a wise choice in terms of drivers. Experience over youth is an age old argument and is applicable to most sports, yet as circumstances suggest a rocky road ahead as McLaren and Honda reacquaint themselves, a safe pair of hands behind the wheel is an excellent place to start. They have elected for the safe option, but as a famous saying suggests, discretion is the better part of valour.