McLaren drivers contradict their team boss Ron Dennis
McLaren were in complete meltdown this weekend as Ron Dennis insisted Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso would stay for next season, only for both drivers to flatly contradict their team boss.
Despite the McLaren chairman’s unequivocal declarations, and his belief that he has persuaded Button to perform a dramatic U-turn on his decision to retire, it is conceivable that both the 35-year-old and Alonso could leave the team at the end of the year.
McLaren teammate's Jenson Button, left, of Britain and Fernando Alonso of Spain, joke as they walk to the drivers meeting following the second practice session at the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix earlier this month. Picture/AP.
The team are already in a major crisis, suffering one of the worst seasons in their history, but they could not afford to lose either driver, particularly now Dennis has said both will stay.
It would be a humiliating blow which would further damage McLaren’s relationship with sponsors – what sponsors they still have - as well as Dennis’s position with his fellow shareholders. His leadership once again came under the microscope after today’s calamity.
Given his increasingly strident comments – the Spaniard was vociferous in his criticism of engine supplier Honda during the Japanese Grand Prix, their home race – Alonso’s place has to be in serious doubt. He is in the first season of a three-year contract but McLaren could not stop him retiring.
Button’s position is harder to determine, but he declined to confirm Dennis’s claim that he would stay at the team. After deciding to retire from the sport last weekend in Singapore, Button did little to rebuff reports in the build-up in Suzuka than he was set for the exit. Jonathan Neale, McLaren’s chief operating officer, even conceded the team could not persuade Button to stay if he wanted to retire.
But Dennis claimed he had prompted a last-minute change of heart by calling Button, making it clear McLaren would not be exercising their option to release the 2009 world champion from his contract a year early.
In a day of frenetic, farcical developments, the 68-year-old Dennis said just an hour before today’s race he had offered Button his full pay rise, from £8 million to £12m a season. He said he had spoken to the driver on Thursday, just four days after the 35-year-old revealed his mind was made up, widely believed to confirm he wanted to leave Formula One.
“Jenson will be in a McLaren next year as far as I am concerned and far as he is concerned,” Dennis said. “The fact that I had not made it abundantly clear to Jenson that we were going to stick with the two-year contract threw a curve ball into it.”
Button's uncertain future
Button himself conceded a lot had happened since the night of the Singapore Grand Prix, indicating his change in position. It also appears that McLaren became aware that Alonso’s position was in doubt, and subsequently decided to quickly sure up Button’s place.
“There’s been a lot going on,” Button said. “It’s not been straightforward, as it might seem from other people’s comments. It’s a lot more complex than that and always is. And that’s why I’m not saying anything else.”
Button then refused to confirm Dennis’s assertion that he would be racing for McLaren next year, extending his career into a 17th season.
“I can’t comment,” he added. “That’s his [Dennis’s] choice. You’ll have to wait and see. I’m not going to comment on something that I don’t know the future on. I’ve never talked about our private matters, that’s all I’m going to say.”
McLaren driver Jenson Button followed by Sauber driver Marcus Ericsson of Sweden during the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix at the Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, Central Japan, at the weekend. Picture/AP.
The 35-year-old said he wanted to race next year if he could be in a competitive car. And if he is not? “Who knows,” Button replied.
The McLaren boss also stated unequivocally that Alonso will be driving for the team in 2016, despite speculation to the contrary over the weekend.
But both his drivers were not singing from the same muddled hymn sheet. Just as Dennis was claiming Alonso would stay, the two-time world champion – by far the most mischievous, troublesome driver in the sport – said simultaneously that his future is unclear.
Asked directly if he would be at McLaren next season, the Spaniard told the BBC: “I don’t know. I’m sure we will win together but it is a matter of when.”
Dennis simply said he was “surprised” by Alonso’s comments. “I don’t know what he means by that comment,” he added. “I spoke to him earlier today. He’s got a contract. He understands the contract. I’m surprised at the comment.”
The whole saga spectacularly drasw the spotlight onto the enormous mess McLaren find themselves in. And the shambolic events of the day also highlighted why either driver - apart from their combined salaries - would want to stay with the team. The car was miles off the pace and evidently both drivers do not see eye to eye with the team boss.
Team radio outbursts
Alonso took to publicly humiliating Honda at their home race with team radio outbursts, so great was his disappointment. After being overtaken by a Sauber, Alonso said: “This is very embarrassing, very embarrassing.”
And when passed by Max Verstappen, he shouted: “GP2 engine! GP2 engine!” before letting out a cry of frustration. It was a reference to the feeder series to Formula One, where the cars have significantly less power.
Dennis said the 34-year-old’s messages were “unprofessional” but that he would not go “ballistic” at his driver. Privately, McLaren are happy for the heat to be turned up on Honda, so woeful has their performance this year been.
Alonso eventually finished 11th, while Button was 16th. Whether either of them will make it to the start of next season remains unclear, whatever Dennis says.