By Carlo Carluccio
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article
At the risk of taking octogenarians seriously I would like to begin today’s offering by paraphrasing Stirling Moss, “There are drivers and there are racers – the difference is substantial.”
I have never made any secret of the individuals that I enjoy watching in top level motorsport. On two wheels the obvious choice is Valentino Rossi but I’d have to add Carl Fogarty, Mick Doohan, Mike Hailwood, and Barry Sheene. Double the wheel count and names such as Gilles Villeneuve, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, and Michael Schumacher emerge.
Of today’s combatants Max Verstappen looks likely to be joining a list that includes Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, and Lewis Hamilton. The names listed, to my mind, share one thing in common; the racer’s mind-set.
For the thousands of column inches that are written about F1 around the world I believe we would be hard pushed to find anyone willing to declare Nico Rosberg to be a true challenger to the current champion. Rosberg is someone who I would class as one of the aforementioned “drivers”. A top driver but nothing special in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, amongst others, I guess I’d include Felipe Massa and Jenson Button in that list too.
Normally I would prepare the piece with nary a second thought but after witnessing the vicious attacks upon my colleague – Fortis – writing an opinion piece about Jenson, I guess I need to watch out too.
Let’s get some perspective here, ok…
I shout passionately at clouds, I am thick skinned and if my words make you applaud or hate – then I have achieved my target. It’s not my issue which way you cast your vote.
Over the years from Formula Ford and throughout his career, I’ve met Jenson Button a number of times at different race meetings and found him to be very likeable. However in recent weeks I have found the British Channel 4 coverage almost sycophantic in support of the man from Frome.
Ron Dennis has repeatedly proven himself to be amongst the largest of the fish in the Piranha Club. He has been ruthless with his accoutrement of sponsors over the decades and when the situation has called for hard-nosed decisions, the man has never been daunted to bruise a driver’s ego.
So Mr Dennis has devised a cunning plan to employ Button as a brand ambassador because he has proven indispensable to the Mclaren team and their roster of sponsors. Additionally, in the event that Alonso carries out his threat to retire from an uninspiring sport then he has a World Champion who can step in to fill his sizeable boots. Yet listening to the aforementioned broadcasters I feel that Button is supposedly England’s saviour. A driver who incidentally had to wait for the championships to finish before he was confirmed for the following seasons in 2014 and 2015.
When I started watching F1, Mclaren were synonymous with Marlboro. From the original signing of the deal in 1974 through to the culmination of their contract in 1996, Ron Dennis’ team was considered ground-breaking in their approach to corporate sponsorship.
In 1997 title sponsorship transferred across to a German tobacco brand - West. Coupled with the associated Mercedes engine partnership this led to a rebirth of the iconic Silver Arrows. This partnership remained in place until tobacco advertising was banned from the sport. At which point, Vodafone, having been released by Ferrari took over title sponsorship in Woking.
The partnership lasted until the end of 2013 when the mobile giant decided against renewing the contract and Mclaren emerged from the 2014 winter with a new livery of compromised hues.
Ron has insisted over the years that he would not drop his sponsorship rate and the cars emerging from the MTC have thus far been shorn of major sponsorship. Surely sponsors should be climbing over each other with cases of money to pay for the much loved Button’s services? Yet there has been an exodus of major backers like Tag Heuer who have left Mclaren, but not the F1 sphere.
A glance at the Woking team’s website shows a vast portfolio of different associates and it’s likely that both JB and Alonso are ushered in to shake hands with their guests. Yet in early 2014, the President of Santander, Emilio Botin, gave an interview to the Marca sports newspaper which shed more light than the specialist media would probably allude to.
“We want to continue in F1 for at least ten more years. I am convinced that in ten years Fernando Alonso will be as good as he is today.”
“The partnership with Ferrari is the best we have had throughout our history. It is the key for Santander being known around the world. There is only one Ferrari team, period.”
“We were interested in being with Mclaren still, because we have a small bank in England, but it was a small sponsorship. When Lewis Hamilton was there it was justified. Jenson Button is a great driver, but it’s another matter.”
Ironic really that the corporate world have a view of Button that is obviously not shared by the ‘sponsor-light’ Woking team. A Mclaren team that reluctantly signed his Spanish team-mate for 2015 because Honda – who incidentally had worked with Button from 2003 to 2008 - believed they needed a superstar and leader to guide the team…