Blank Space: The Uncertain 2017 McLaren Driver Lineup

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Longtime McLaren Honda driver and Formula 1 veteran Jenson Button has a decision to make. Then, once Button has made his decision, McLaren will be forced to make one as well. The F1 veteran has not decided whether or not he will return to competition in the 2017 season. With his contract ending with the 2016 season, McLaren is put into an uncertain position. Until Button gives the word, the 2017 McLaren Driver Lineup is uncertain.

Blank Space: The Uncertain 2017 McLaren Driver Lineup

Jenson Button

There is no doubt that the team would love to retain the popular English driver. However, Button feels that there is no reason to remain on a team that is not performing. If he is not contending for the victory, he will take his talents elsewhere: “I have always said that if I feel like I can be in a car that is fighting for wins I will definitely stay – I think any racing driver would – but if I am not, and I feel like I am not, there is nothing else for me to achieve. I will go and play darts instead“. Of his intention to drive next year, Button has been exceptionally cryptic: “I could have a drive next year, but it is whether I want to or not. I don’t know“.

Aside from that insight, Button has also given an idea as to when everyone will know for sure: “I can’t put a timescale on it, but it will be soon enough“. It is obvious that the future lies in Button’s hands and he is not going to let anyone know until he is completely committed. Regarding his desire to be in serious contention to win, this is unlikely with McLaren. The team has gone through a massive upheaval in recent years with the return of Honda. His experience and expertise have been instrumental to bringing the team what little success they have had. However, if he wishes to truly compete, he will have to look elsewhere. At the age of thirty-six, it is unlikely that he would be able to find a top ride outside of McLaren for 2017.

Fernando Alonso

In a strange turn of events, it is Button’s teammate Fernando Alonso who is truly coming to enjoy his time at McLaren. Despite technological limitations and inconsistent results, Alonso insists that McLaren is “probably the best team I’ve been with in my career“. High praise to a struggling team from a two-time Formula 1 World Champion who spent five seasons with Scuderia Ferrari.

Alonso is the one piece of McLaren’s puzzle that currently fits. In the 2017 McLaren driver lineup, his seat is assured. This has been despite a rocky 2016. The Spaniard missed the 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix due to injuries sustained during the 2016 Australian Grand Prix. Since then, his performances remain inconsistent. Despite three points finishes, the 2016 season has also brought three retirements and five finishes outside of the points. Unlike Button, it appears that Alonso has embraced the team’s struggles and is looking to a better future. Button, on the other hand, is looking for results.

Stoffel Vandoorne

In the previously mentioned 2016 Bahrain Grand Prix, Stoffel Vandoorne stood in for an injured Fernando Alonso. The McLaren reserve driver impressed in his F1 debut, finishing tenth. This remains his sole Formula 1 start to date. Vandoorne, like Button, has a decision to make. Having had a taste of the world’s premier racing series, he wants to remain at that level. He is currently waiting on the decision of Button as to whether he stays or goes. It is assumed that if Button should choose to leave, Vandoorne would take his seat.

This has also left Vandoorne in a somewhat difficult position: “The only thing I can confirm is that I have to drive in F1 next season. And I hope with all my heart that it will be at McLaren“. Although Vandoorne maintains that this is a “comfortable position“, it is unlikely that he could find a ride equal to McLaren’s in prestige and potential. And so, Button and Vandoorne face the same problem but at very different ends of the spectrum. Button is not satisfied with poor performance, but is too old to find another top team to drive for. Vandoorne is not satisfied with being on the outside looking in, but is too young and inexperienced to find another top team to drive for.

Honda McLaren

Regarding the 2017 McLaren driver lineup, the team is at a loss until they know exactly what their drivers intend. Only then can they decide their short-term and long-term plans. Obviously, it is hard to commit to Button long-term given his age. However, it is unlikely that Vandoorne will wait around any longer if they are to give Button the 2017 seat. McLaren is aware of the struggles they have faced, and the need to look farther ahead than just the upcoming season. McLaren racing director Eric Boullier told Motorsport.com: “What McLaren went through in the last two years was a deep change, and having Honda onboard now as a new player in F1, we can play it medium and long term. So we will see“.

Regardless of which driver they end up with for the 2017 McLaren driver lineup, the team will still struggle to find success. However, if they are to take on Vandoorne, the likelihood of success in the future will be greater. It is likely in their best interest to take on Vandoorne for the 2017 season now that Button has aided their development. They could allow Vandoorne to develop and hone his own skills as they hone the technology until all aspects of the team peak in unison. Ultimately, McLaren should look to avoid another situation like they had with Sergio Perez or Kevin Magnussen. Allow the team to grow and mature now that the technology is coming around. With Alonso comfortably filling the other seat, the balance of innocence and experience is the optimal choice for the 2017 McLaren driver lineup.