The 2012 driver merry-go-round hasn’t been the most exciting of recent times. Unlike past seasons, most front running teams sorted out their driver line-ups for next year early in 2011. Notable exceptions were Mark Webber & Jenson Button who signed contract extensions towards the end of the year, with Red Bull & McLaren respectively. Button’s contract duration remained a mystery till McLaren bigwig Martin Whitmarsh revealed it to be a 3-year deal at the Indian GP.
Nico Rosberg then proceeded to ink a contract with Mercedes GP for 2013 and beyond. This left only the mid-field teams to sort out their seats for 2012
Which all seems good and fine. But why have Rosberg & Button hitched their long term fortunes to Mercedes & Mclaren? This seemed a bit strange considering some plum seats would be up for grabs come the end of 2012. The current F1 hotcakes, Red Bull, have Webber out of contract at the end of next year. Ferrari may be looking to off load Felipe Massa, who’s contract ends next year. Another potential golden opportunity could be available at Mercedes, if Michael Schumacher doesn’t choose to continue. Their recent hoarding of top engineers indicates how serious the team is about their F1 ambitions.
Looking at Rosberg, it seems like he made a choice before one was made for him. While he has been highly rated for his abilities, he has not won a race since his debut in 2006 (106 race starts) and has only reached the podium 5 times in as many years. It is obviously appealing to Mercedes to have 2 top Germans in the team, but there were other German drivers available. Both Adrian Sutil & Nico Hulkenberg are looking for drives. While it’s easy to say that Mercedes preferred continuity, Rosberg himself admitted at Abu Dhabi on Friday that the contract negotiations had taken longer than expected. As has become the norm this year, Mercedes abstained from revealing the length of Rosberg’s contract which could indicate that there are clauses allowing Rosberg to leave if the team is not sufficiently competitive.
Coming to Button, Mclaren initially never mentioned his contract length either. So could his contract have performance opt out clauses as well? It is a less cut and dry in Button’s case as he has settled well at McLaren, better than most expected when he joined. There is a certain comfort for him at Mclaren (i.e. British driver in a British team) and he has trounced his team mate this year. But McLaren tend to stretch the limits when it comes to sponsor commitments & promotion days, which has taken a toll on both drivers. It would have been interesting to see Button staying at Mclaren for 2012 and then move to Ferrari or Red Bull. He has already proven himself against one world champion, perhaps he could have proven himself against Alonso at Ferrari or Vettel at Red Bull.