The real block on the driver market this season was not, as was widely suggested at one point, Ferrari’s delay in announcing their signing of Alonso: it was the negotiation between Daimler (ie Mercedes-Benz) and McLaren over the terms on which their partnership would end and Mercedes could buy Brawn. Until that was settled, the question of whether Button, Raikkonen or Heidfeld would take the two vacant race seats, one at McLaren, one at Brawn, could not be sorted.
The outcome is in fact still unclear, but the hot rumour currently seems to be that Brawn – or Mercedes, as they will be – will opt for an all-German line-up of Rosberg and Heidfeld, leaving McLaren with an all-English, all-World Champion line-up of Button and Hamilton. Is this wise?
There is potential for this to be a real lose-lose for all parties. While Mercedes might like the idea of an all-German line-up, a driver pairing of the same nationality tends to make sponsors’ lives harder and play less well commercially outside the territory that originated the men in question. For that reason alone I’m surprised to see such an outcome apparently looming; worse still, an England-Germany championship rivalry will be manna from heaven for The Sun, and I really fear for what distasteful guff they are likely to come out with over the course of a season.
But there are racing-related reasons for scepticism as well. From Brawn’s perspective, Rosberg and Heidfeld is surely not as strong a driver line-up as a Rosberg-Button one would have been? Both drivers are well-respected, but neither has yet been able to prove themselves a world-beater; Heidfeld in particular was out-paced by Kubica last year when they were in a car that could challenge for the title. Nor will the team get the nice garages at the end of the pit lane. That said, it could be a line-up that will settle down nicely and provide a platform for a title push by Rosberg.
The McLaren half of the equation looks much dodgier, however. While it would be surprising to see a repeat of the Alonso-Hamilton or Prost-Senna situations, there could still be tensions. The team is built around Hamilton, so how will Jenson play it? He had to win a set of mind-games with Villeneuve when he joined BAR… but then again, Villeneuve was overtly confrontational; Hamilton fils et pere are more subtle, and will more likely just keep Button marginalised by a soft use of their existing relationships at the team. What exactly will Button be able to do about that? Quite possibly nothing, which will place him at a psychological advantage, to compound the very real risk that Hamilton will be plain quicker than him.
Such a scenario could be uncomfotable for McLaren, but perhaps ultimately advantageous. If Hamilton guns for the title and Button can only trail in behind him mopping up points the only loser will be Button’s reputation. Indeed, history strongly suggests, as I’ve said here many times, that a new driver joining an established driver in a team will always be out-paced by the old hand for at least half a season – whether they can actually be quicker or not will not become clear until the second half of the season. Or to put it another way, unless Button races at a surprisingly high level, he cannot reasonably expect to be able to defend his title next year in a McLaren.
There is a danger for McLaren, however: for warnings from the past, they should be looking not to 2007 or 1988, but to 2000, when the team’s policy of not having a preference for either driver cost them the title. Coulthard was stronger in the middle of the season and was the main challenger to Schumcaher at one point, taking points of Hakkinen; but at either end of the season, Hakkinen was the dominant of the pair. They took points off each other and Ferrari came through the middle to win. See also Vettel and Webber this year, Raikkonen and Massa last year (and in 2007, when Raikkonen only just squeaked through), Raikkonen and Montoya in 2005, Montoya and Ralf in 2003. Having two equally matched drivers and no team orders is a good way to lose titles.
Still, amid all this talk of British drivers, everyone seems to be forgetting to ask whether Anthony Davidson will get a well-deserved race seat; if one of the new teams decides to hire him, it will surely be a more sound decision than any of those apparently taken in Mercedesland recently.