The McLaren F1 team will once again leave driver negotiations until later in the season, in a ploy they believe keeps the drivers minds focused on performing to the highest of standards, as well as making them aware that their results could go for or against them, in terms of their future with the team.
Having been lambasted for the last two seasons for taking too long to make a decision on their driver line-up, and thus limiting the options available to the driver they let go or do not sign, will McLaren learn their lesson in 2016?
When Fernando Alonso joined McLaren back in 2015, the deal struck was for the Spaniard to remain onboard for three years, so the double world champion still has another season to go at the Woking based squad. Current team-mate Jenson Button on the other hand sees his contract come to an end in 2016, leaving McLaren bosses the unenviable task of deciding whether to keep the experienced Brit on, or bring in Reserve Driver Stoffel Vandoorne, the Belgian protégé who got them off the mark with their first points of 2016, at the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix and on his debut in F1.
Vandoorne is a highly sought after prospect, having won the GP2 championship in 2015, as well as finishing on the podium in his first ever Japanese Super Formula race, the Series in which the Belgian currently competes, as he waits in the wings for his time in F1 to come. As a top prospect for the future, Vandoorne has naturally attracted interest from other F1 teams and although McLaren Chairman Ron Dennis has moved to warn off the competition, the Belgian would be foolish not to consider every avenue, given McLaren’s record in the driver market game.
Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen are both former drivers of the Woking based squad that have been burned by McLaren’s indecision in the past. At the end of 2013, Perez was left with little options of a drive, when McLaren decided to promote then Reserve Driver Magnussen to a full-time seat for the following season. It was only through the help of then Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh that the Mexican was able to secure a seat with the Sahara Force India squad late in the day.
After being their star protégé for a number of years, Magnussen was ousted with little time to make other arrangements, after spending just one season driving for the squad in 2014. It was a shambolic state of affairs that saw McLaren unable to make a decision on whether to keep Button or Magnussen, alongside new recruit Fernando Alonso in 2015. It took them until December to decide, and all the while both drivers were becoming more and more uncertain of their future. The lateness in the season meant that the Dane was left without any other option in F1, and very little else amongst the other motor racing arena’s. Loyal to the end though, Magnussen stood in for Fernando Alonso at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, after the Spaniard had sustained injuries during pre-season testing. That meant a seat the Dane had lined up in IndyCar for 2015, was now no longer a possibility, and the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 champion had no drive at all for the remainder of the season. Although he remained on McLaren’s books as Reserve Driver for a number of months, Magnussen’s goodwill went unrewarded, and he was dropped completely, by email on his birthday, for 2016. Both drivers are now back in F1 with rival teams, but they have learned the hard way when it comes to contract negotiations.
It is hoped that this year, McLaren will not take the same stance as in previous seasons, though as the shrewd operator that Ron Dennis is, you would be a fool to bet against it! It is still early in the season at present, but McLaren will have to start making a decision on who they see driving for them in the future sooner rather than later, or else they could end up being burnt themselves now that people are wise to their previous tactics.
When speaking to Autosport.com recently, McLaren Racing Director Eric Boullier, confirmed no talks had yet taken place in regards to driver contracts.
“No. Absolutely nothing. We have not started discussing anything with any drivers.
“It’s too early in the season and it would be too distracting for the team.”
When asked if he had any plans to remain in F1 after this season, during the Monaco Race weekend, Button was giving little away.
“I have not thought about the Canadian Grand Prix yet let alone next year. That’s all I have for you.”
If rumours are to be believed, then it will be Vandoorne that lines up alongside Alonso in the McLaren next year, with Button possibly returning to the team where it all began for him back in 2000, at the Williams Martini Racing team.