When was Formula 1’s last contract row to rival the incredible saga unfolding right now around Oscar Piastri, Alpine and (probably) McLaren?
How about the almost-as-incredible saga in which Jenson Button tried to quit BAR amid their breakthrough season together to rejoin Williams, and then a year later had to work just as hard to make sure he definitely didn’t have to go to Williams.
Otmar Szafnauer puts in an appearance in this one too…
Last year, to coincide with Button’s appointment as a Williams F1 advisor, Glenn Freeman explained the full story behind what happened with Button, BAR and Williams back in the mid-2000s. Here’s another chance to read it:
“I chose to leave BAR and move to Williams for 2005. Why? Bloody good question?”
It’s little surprise Jenson Button doesn’t devote much of his autobiography to the messy contract saga that went on for nearly two years involving BAR and Williams.
But at the third attempt, in 2021 Button finally returns to the team that plucked him from Formula 3 and gave him his F1 debut at the age of 20 – as ‘senior advisor’. Perhaps it was always destined to happen at some point.
The first time he tried to go back, it was a bombshell in the F1 driver market. Button was having the best season of his career in 2004, and had just charged from 13th on the grid to second in the German Grand Prix with BAR.
He left Hockenheim talking of chasing down Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari for second in the championship. Everything was rosy. Or so we thought.
“I’d got a little sniff of something going on,” then-BAR team boss David Richards told The Race for a recent episode of our Bring Back V10s classic F1 podcast.
“Jenson’s management at the time had asked for a couple of meetings with me prior to then, and the line of discussion around the future and around our engine supply was a little bit… strange.
“I’d actually consulted with our in-house lawyer at the time, to say, ‘Am I being paranoid? There’s something I’m not comfortable with about the questioning’.
“And I reassured myself that the contract we had was robust in terms of our engine supply.”
“We are of the firm opinion, on strong legal advice, that BAR lost the opportunity to obtain Jenson and I have no doubt he will be with the Williams-BMW F1 team for 2005″ :: Frank Williams
BAR’s engine deal with Honda was at the centre of what happened next.
Button’s contract with the team had an option for 2005 that had to be taken up by July 31 in the summer of 2004.
Following Honda’s confirmation of a commitment to BAR until at least the end of 2007 during the German GP weekend (July 23), the manufacturer gave Button’s management “all the reassurance they had asked for”, according to then-Honda Racing Development vice-president Otmar Szafnauer, who added at the time: “When we asked if the answers provided were what he was looking for, [Button’s management] answered ‘yes’.”
The option in Button’s contract had been approved by BAR at board level on July 20. Button’s management team was informed ahead of the July 31 deadline. They confirmed receipt of the agreement on July 27. That should have been that.
Five days after that deadline, Williams announced Button had been signed for 2005. Williams said it was approached by Button’s management saying his option had not been taken up by BAR and that he was available. After seeking its own legal advice, Williams did a deal.
“We are of the firm opinion, on strong legal advice, that BAR lost the opportunity to obtain Jenson and I have no doubt he will be with the Williams-BMW F1 team for 2005,” Frank Williams told the media in the wake of the announcement.
Richards says all of those questions from Button’s management about the Honda deal were crucial, “because that was what they hung their hat on to exit the contract”.
“Hands-up, I was thinking of number one, hoping to move to a team that I thought could further my career” :: Jenson Button
“They claimed we did not have an official supply of engines from Honda,” he adds. “I can’t remember the wording of his contract, it was something like ‘an official supply agreement with the engine supplier’, whoever it happened to be.
“They were prying into the Honda situation. I was convinced our arrangements with Honda satisfied the terms of Jenson’s option, so did our lawyers, but clearly they thought there was a legal loophole.”
Button’s logic for wanting to make the move – a decision outgoing Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya called “crazy” given the relative form of the two teams in 2004 – was that in his eyes the manufacturer tie-ups each team had were different.
Honda at this time was just a supplier of works engines to BAR, whereas the BMW-Williams relationship was far more integrated. Button considered Williams “a works manufacturer team”. He also felt BAR was “a few years behind” in terms of facilities and resources.
He doesn’t sugar-coat it: “Hands-up, I was thinking of number one, hoping to move to a team that I thought could further my career and help me become a world champion.”
The day after the Williams deal was announced, Richards said Button was trying to leave BAR based on “a very slim technicality based on Honda’s commitment to us”. He called it “ridiculous” and vowed to challenge it.
Richards came in for criticism from Williams and Button for playing out so much of the dispute through the media. Williams claimed it had hoped to resolve the matter in private, and only made a public announcement of signing Button once it learned Richards had leaked the news to the press.
Button called Richards’ approach to fighting the battle in public “unnecessary”.
“I don’t like the way it’s been handled at all,” he said at a press conference in London in early September, once Williams had lodged its contract with the contract recognition board ahead of a hearing that would take place the following month. “I’d rather it was a much more simple move and we hadn’t got into such a big argument about it.”
Richards believes it was important to show the shellshocked staff at BAR that he was fighting their corner in public.
“Some things are best handled discreetly and behind the scenes, but once an issue like that becomes public, you have to stand shoulder to shoulder with your team and make sure they know that you are fighting for them,” he adds. “That was my role at the time.
“We were robust in our position. We had a contract, and we told him ‘we will defend that position’. I let Williams know the same situation. We pushed back quite robustly.”
“I’m very cynical about driver managers. They tend to be more disruptive at times than constructive” :: David Richards
So convinced was Richards that BAR would win the contract dispute, that he didn’t entertain the idea of having to find a replacement for Button – including when recently-axed BAR driver Jacques Villeneuve got in touch about the potentially vacant seat.
“We had a number of options but I was dismissive of them all because my focus was solely on retaining Jenson,” he says. “I had no reason to believe we wouldn’t retain him.”
Richards was highly critical of Button’s conduct back then from trying to get out of the BAR contract in the first place to not discussing it in person. But at the time he suspected that it wasn’t all Button’s doing – an opinion he retains to this day.
“I’m very cynical about driver managers,” he says. “They’ve got to earn their crust, and they tend to be more disruptive at times than constructive. There are exceptions to that, but I’ve had a few of the worst in my time.”
Once the matter for 2005 was resolved in BAR’s favour, Button parted with his management company, and asked his friend Richard Goddard to take over the role. Shortly after that he admitted that he was “misguided” in not dealing with Richards in person.
He signed another deal with Williams for 2006, then learned that it was losing BMW entirely, as the German manufacturer was buying into Sauber.
Goddard’s first big challenge as Button’s manager was to get him out of the deal. Having spent part of 2004 trying to get out of BAR to leave for Williams, Button and Goddard spent 2005 trying to get out of a deal with Williams to stay with BAR – which was now part-owned by Honda.
Frank Williams held firm, and eventually Button was forced to pay an eye-watering amount to buy himself out of the contract. The initial attempt to leave BAR for Williams looked misguided in 2004, but backing out of a Williams deal for 2006 was ultimately money well spent.
Another part of Button’s desire to move on from BAR in 2004 was his belief that the team wouldn’t be as competitive in 2005.
In fairness to him, that proved to be true. Richards, who left at the end of 2004 when Honda bought into BAR, found that outcome amusing.
“The irony was, you would say if the team produced a good car in 2005 he would stay, but they didn’t produce a good car and he did stay!
“These things don’t always follow the natural pattern. All you can do in these situations is behave openly and transparently, and talk to each other.
“I look back and I can honestly tell you, during the height of when I was hands-on, there wouldn’t be a single driver I didn’t fall out with in the most monumental way. We’re all competitive, we all want the same thing and perhaps we’re not going about it the same way.
“Most of these drivers were in their formative years. They are young people, they’re talented, but they haven’t really got all the other skillsets one would expect of a maturer individual.
“I’ve fallen out with every driver. I could name them all. And you know what? I could also name every single one of them today and say we became friends, because they’ve all come back over the years, whether it’s Jenson, Jacques, Colin McRae, and said, ‘I wish I knew what I know now. I’d have behaved differently’.”
It’s impossible to map out how Button’s career would have gone if he’d made either of those moves to Williams. But the path he stayed on with Honda – even though it involved driving two terrible cars in 2007-08 – ultimately put him in the right place at the right time to become world champion in 2009 with Brawn GP.
It all worked out, and now he can go back to Williams and find a way to repay the team’s faith in him from 2000. But it’s unlikely the team will repay the money it cost him to get out of that 2006 deal…