It was a bit of a crazy weekend in Monza and no, I’m not talking about the race. Sadly that was won in the case of Nico Rosberg, and lost in the case of Lewis Hamilton, within the space of about twenty metres at the start. An inconsistency with Hamilton’s clutch which wasn’t his fault, saw him get swallowed up by, first his team mate, then the two Ferraris and finally Valteri Bottas in the Williams. Game over, despite Hamilton’s best efforts.
No, it’s a race that will long be forgotten I’m afraid. Monza may be the Temple of Speed, but there was little to worship from the 53 laps, although Daniel Ricciardo’s lunge down the inside on Valteri Bottas was the sort of overtake that was an answer to all our prayers at that stage. A sensational move from the Australian. It was what happened away from the track that captured our attention.
Thursday at 1.45pm and the Williams motorhome was packed out with cameras and journalists as Felipe Massa sat centre stage, his family on hand, to deliver an emotional speech announcing his retirement. Was it a surprise? Not really. To be honest the thought of this being Felipe’s last season has been prominent in the mind and the subject of Paddock chatter for some time now. After 14 seasons in the sport his form this year, even after scoring in the first 6 races, had done little to suggest that Williams would keep him after his contract expires in November.
Which isn’t to say that Felipe isn’t a top driver, he is and certainly he has been over the years. A world champion for all of 15 seconds on that epic afternoon at Interlagos, he’s experienced it all in the sport and will be missed on many levels when he walks away. That Williams allowed him the dignity to announce the decision on his terms said much about the team’s compassion towards their driver, and they should be applauded as loudly as the hand clapping that erupted, spontaneously, from those present as Felipe finished his final thank you.
Talk quickly turned to who might replace him. F1 moves on swiftly, even off the track. Sergio Perez was a firm favourite, but on Saturday I learnt that he’d signed a contract with Force India for next year, so he was out. Lance Stroll? Don’t be surprised if that young man races for the team in 2017, be even less surprised if it’s 2018.
Jenson Button, constantly linked with a return to his former team throughout the year, was also mentioned strongly. But despite feeling that a move could have been on the cards earlier on in the year, it was beginning to look less and less likely as the races ticked by.
But where was he going to go, if it wasn’t Williams? The smart money was on a Fernando Alonso/Stoffel Vandoorne partnership at McLaren next season and that left Jenson in the cold. No matter how much you want to make it work, three doesn’t go into two and McLaren had the unenviable task of deciding which way to move forward. Alonso had a year left on his deal, too expensive to pay off. Button was driving well whilst Vandoorne was surely too hot a prospect to let slip through your fingers.
Step forward Ron Dennis then with an innovative solution. A deal that was first discussed in Belgium and finalised in Italy and revealed to those that needed to know in the team just a couple of hours before Button stood before the media on Saturday evening to announce that he was going to step down from racing. He wasn’t going to retire, however, instead he would take a sabbatical for a year at least, become an ambassador for the team and if Alonso didn’t continue after his contract runs out at the end of next year, would be ready to return if needed. Crucially for Jenson he’d also act as a reserve driver too. He’d be ready at whatever race he was needed. Stoffel would get his race seat, a thoroughly well-deserved one too, and McLaren could keep all three drivers happy.
Jenson stated that he needed a break from racing for a while and that the new role suited him well. How much choice he had in the end, none of us will know, but at least he has the comfort of securing a contract as a driver – albeit one that won’t be racing – and that should come at a premium salary that a mere ambassador wouldn’t attract.
We’ve seen drivers in the past step away for a while and then return, Raikkonen and Lauda spring to mind instantly, but whether we ever see Jenson in a Grand Prix again only time will tell. And if he doesn’t race again after this year, it’s a shame that he won’t be able to bow out in Abu Dhabi in the knowledge that this is definitely it. But then when you’re trying to solve a problem of numbers at McLaren there was never going to be an ideal solution.
Personally I’d love to see JB race again, he’s too good to stop completely at this moment. But there’s no drive out there to give him a chance of racing at the sharp end and you can understand if racing towards the rear of the grid doesn’t hold the same appeal as it might have done 15 years ago.
It raises the prospect too of there only being one British driver on the grid for next year, so no pressure on Renault or Jolyon Palmer, but with my patriotic hat on, it would be nice to see that partnership continue.
Driver announcements aside, the story that Formula 1 itself might be about to change hands and a new owner come in, was gathering momentum and, indeed, by the time you read this blog, the deal might already have been done. The sums involved are vast but comprehendible. The prospect of Bernie Ecclestone not running the sport still maybe a little less easier to realise. Whatever your view, a Formula 1 without Bernie at the helm? It’ll take some getting used to.
Talking of deals though, the future of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza was announced midway through first practice. Not signed however, no, the lawyers are still finalising the small print. But agreed nonetheless for another three years. As much as I used to love going to Imola and as much as they’d dearly love to stage the race, to not go back to Monza every year would be akin to the Grand National moving away from Aintree, or the snooker World Championship packing up and leaving the Crucible.
We could have an extra race of course, although with 21 on the provisional calendar for next season, I’m not sure where you’d fit it in. But Monza should host the Italian Grand Prix, and when the sun’s shining it’s a great place to be. Where else for instance would you find a five a side football pitch on the grid for the inaugural Heineken charity match between F1 drivers and former Champions League legends? And accept that whilst it might be a bit bonkers, it still fits in. I hadn’t commentated on a football match for nearly 12 years and had great fun, as did the drivers, even if they did lose by a Rugby score!
Monza can be gloriously weird but definitely wonderful. Monza can be unpredictable, something always happens there that dominates the headlines long after the chequered flag has dropped.
Hellos, firsts, goodbyes and in the case of Jenson Button, well it’s something just a little bit different, certainly to what we expected. That’s Monza, not always the best weekend of the year, but always something a little bit different.