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Mercedes musical chairs as Jenson heads for Woking

As the dust settles on the news that Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button is Mclaren bound for 2010 and beyond, UKMotortalk’s Graham Benge takes a look at what he can expect as he takes the coveted number 1 to Woking and speculates on the bigger picture which might well have helped engineer his move.

“Don’t mention the war” they used to say in Fawlty Towers but now we have two moustachioed RAF types flying red white and blue Spitfires yet powered by Messerschmitt engines!

How times change, & despite knowing that Lewis and Jenson get on really well I never thought they would both be signed by McLaren at the same time.
Will Martin Whitmarsh be able to hold the two of them in check, to prevent a major ego clash? Will McLaren, as they have always done, field identical cars and show no garage bias, or will it degenerate into the Senna/Prost rivalry of the early 1990s?

Even if it did that rivalry produced one of McLaren’s most successful eras, winning – between the two drivers – 15 races out of the 16 in the 1988 season despite their drivers coming to blows very publicly at least twice!

But to see what’s really going on one needs to step a lot further back.

Only with sufficient perspective do we realise that both Lewis and Jenson are just very well paid and very talented pawns in a much bigger and longer game. The driver moves and their inflated salaries are really but a nickel and dime side show.

McLaren will doubtless become a major player in the sports car market within the next two or three years, probably rivalling Ferrari and Porsche and seriously hurting Mercedes sports car sales, especially at the premium end of that particular market niche.
The 722 SM we talked about recently is the last of the supercar collaborations between Mclaren & Mercedes and has only a few weeks left to run before they have all been completed. This expensive “niche of a niche” has shown no decline whatsoever, indeed those with the financial wherewithal to spend a million euros a pop on a car can still afford those sums of money.

The great game seems to be one of major power shifts in the car industry at its most expensive. Mclaren have no desire to be a volume car producer, they will be a high tech, high cost, high profit constructor, and want to go their own way in car making; therefore Ron Dennis and the other investors certainly don’t want to sell out completely to Mercedes Benz.

Indeed they are probably very glad to be able to buy back the 40% Mercedes currently own, I’m sure that opportunity came as a very pleasant surprise to Ron and Mansour Ojjeh.

At the same time Mercedes found that they could do a deal with Mclaren where they continue to provide engines to the F1 team at a price, dramatically reduce their financial input into the Woking squad yet keep their name on the car and still have spare change left over to buy the 2009 World Championship winning F1 team, repaint the car as the legendary Silver Arrows, hire two very capable German drivers – Rosberg and Heidfeld – retain the services of master tactician Ross Brawn to work alongside Norbert Haug, (putting a substantial profit into Ross’s pocket as he capitalises 70% of a team he paid just a £1 for – in addition to a substantial dowry from Honda) and achieve all of this at what would seem to be bargain basement prices in global terms.

The end result is that Mclaren get the best drivers and the best engines while they still want them, and in addition get to design and build their own road cars whilst Mercedes get to own their own F1 team with their own name on it, their choice of drivers at lower outlay than they expected and get to strengthen their brand image against Mclaren’s road car division into the bargain.

As Ron said last week “for all parties it’s a win-win scenario”.

I think we are going to see a lot of wins for McLaren in 2010!

Graham Benge

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