One era has ended for sure at McLaren, and another is in question at the end of today’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Jenson Button has definitively signed off the McLaren-Mercedes 20-year period together with the package’s final top-five finish, fifth after starting sixth. Honda returns to Formula One with McLaren next season.
The question that looms larger though is whether this was Button’s 266th and final Grand Prix start after 15 years, and that is a question set to be unanswered until December 1 at least.
Button started nicely from sixth and up to fourth straightaway, following rough starts for Valtteri Bottas’ Williams and Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso ahead of him.
Button’s McLaren teammate, Kevin Magnussen, had his race compromised before it ever really got going following contact with Adrian Sutil’s Sauber exiting the Turn 7 hairpin on the opening lap.
An early pit stop briefly sent Button back to the lower regions of the top 10 but he made it back up to fifth as the race progressed.
“That was tough! I think we made the best of what we had this evening: in terms of strategy, we did the right thing, but we never really had enough pace to attack the cars in front,” Button said.
“So, fifth was as good as it was going to be. Getting the maximum from the car is all that can be asked of a racing driver, and I think I’ve proved this year that I’m still at the top of my game.”
Magnussen’s suspension could have been compromised but the car held intact for the remainder of his race. The Danish rookie ended just outside the points in 11th.
“That was a difficult race. I had quite a bit of contact with Adrian [Sutil] on the first lap – and, after that, the front of the car never felt quite right, but it wasn’t too bad, so I could carry on,” he said.
“My opening stint on the Prime went well – the tire was holding on well and I felt like I could manage the degradation. But once I’d pitted and changed to the Option, the race slipped away from us. The softer tyre ought to have helped us gain some positions over the drivers running the Prime, but we just stayed where we were, and that ruined the race for us.”
Today’s result follows recent form for both drivers. Button has ended the season with four top-fives in the final five races, and considering the McLaren chassis hasn’t been quite the level of the McLaren and Williams, he’s maximized it as best he could if not exceeded it.
Magnussen has been respectable but not otherworldly, and he hasn’t beat Button head-to-head on race day when both have finished since Austria back in June (seventh to 11th).
With Fernando Alonso’s likely arrival only a matter of time, and McLaren junior Stoffel Vandoorne likely to stay in GP2 for another season, it will likely come down to one of the two current drivers alongside in 2015.
On pure form alone, dropping Button would seem to be a mistake. But the Englishman has enjoyed his last weekend of the season regardless, and like Mark Webber a year ago in Brazil, finished his year with a decent result.
While McLaren’s driver lineup decision has been the subject of consternation in the paddock, the team did provide a nice and gracious gesture at the end of today’s race, wishing former driver Hamilton a congratulatory message after the Englishman secured his second World Championship.