Is this Jenson Button’s final season in Formula One?

Button

As the most experienced man on the F1 grid, it's natural that questions are being asked about Jenson Button's future in the sport.

The McLaren driver has started over 250 grands prix since debuting in 2000, winning 15 times and claiming the 2009 world title with Brawn GP. Immensely popular with fans, he is a respected elder statesman of the paddock who can still be relied upon to put in solid on-track performances.

But after a torrid 2013 season, and with 2014 not looking a great deal better, talk has turned to Button's long-term place in F1. Clearly he is in the last few years of his career, but could his final bow come as soon as this year's season-closer in Abu Dhabi?

Button personal life suffered a terrible blow when he lost his father in January of this year. John Button had travelled with his son throughout his F1 career and formed a vital part of the Brit's inner-circle. His death has undoubtedly had a profound effect on Jenson, though whether it will diminish his passion or spur him on remains to be seen.

Age is becoming a factor, too, but at 34 he is not quite the eldest driver on the grid, nor is he too long in the tooth to compete at the top level. After all, Nigel Mansell was 39 when he finally won the world title in 1992, and Jenson is adamant that he has plenty of time left behind the wheel.

"I still feel very young at heart, fitter than ever, and I have all that experience," he told reporters ahead of this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix. "I am in a great position, I have a lot more to give in the future in F1. I definitely cannot see an end to my career. This is where I want to be in my future."

But the decision may not fall to Jenson. Because it remains possible that his team will decide to part ways with the Brit at the conclusion of 2014.

McLaren are in the midst of a revolution. Ron Dennis has returned to the helm this season, ousting Martin Whitmarsh and bringing in Eric Boullier as his deputy.

And in 2015 they'll switch to Honda engines, ending a 20-year relationship with Mercedes. With so many changes elsewhere, a clean break could be made on the driver front, too.

 

Upon his return, Dennis made it quite clear that he wishes to run one of F1’s top drivers, but he does not view Button as belonging in that bracket. Though he can beat anyone on his day, Jenson does not possess the ability to take an average car and make it extraordinary through the sheer power of his talent. Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso are the only three men on the grid who can do that.

None of those are available for 2015, though Alonso is an outside bet given that Ferrari continue to flounder just behind the front-runners. Nico Hulkenberg would be a popular choice for a top seat, with the German's performances at Force India and Sauber drawing weekly plaudits. However Dennis is unlikely to take a punt on a driver who, for all his star turns, is still yet to stand on an F1 podium, let alone win a race.

So perhaps the lack of a world-class replacement will hand Button a stay of execution. Combining the still-raw Kevin Magnussen with an inexperienced team-mate is unlikely to appeal to either McLaren or Honda. And that is if they retain Magnussen at all. After a strong start in Australia the Dane has faded, and he will need to up his game or risk joining Sergio Perez as a one-season-wonder at McLaren.

The Honda link should also work in Button's favour. He raced for the Japanese manufacturer's factory squad between 2006 and 2008, winning their only race in the modern era at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix. That will undoubtedly count for something. It would also be naive to ignore Button's personal links with Japan: his fiancé, Jessica Michibata, is of Japanese heritage, and Jenson has embraced the country with everything from the design of his crash helmet to a tattoo. It all makes him that much more marketable in Japan, and this will go in his favour.

If Jenson is deemed surplus to requirements at McLaren his options to remain in F1 are limited. There is no place for him at Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari, meaning he would have to drop down the grid. A switch to Force India or Williams could be possible, but Button is unlikely to be tempted. In other words, exiting McLaren would probably prompt Button to call time on his F1 career.

It is currently too early in the season to judge how likely that scenario is. Team-mate Magnussen has seemed to have a pace edge thus far, but Jenson continues to prove the wiser head in the races. If that continues the Brit should be secure for 2015, and it is Magnussen whose place will be at greater risk.

However if the Dane starts to turn that raw pace into results and beats Jenson on a regular basis McLaren may conclude that Jenson's time at the top is over and opt to make a change, be it with an established driver or their other young protege, Stoffel Vandoorne.

But perhaps the biggest threat comes from a frustrated Alonso escaping his Ferrari contract and offering his services to McLaren. In that scenario, the team would likely accept his overtures and part ways with Button.

Much depends on the next seven to 10 grands prix. Not for the first time, Jenson is driving for his place in Formula One.