On Friday, Eddie Jordan announced to the world that Michael Schumacher will be making a comeback with the Mercedes Formula 1 team. Generally speaking, Eddie Jordan is a reliable source of motorsport information in the same sense that Gillian McKeith is a qualified authority on diet and nutrition. In this case, however, Jordan's prediction makes a lot of sense, for Michael is clearly directionless without the opiate of Formula 1, and Mercedes have conspired to lose their World Champion driver, Jenson Button, to erstwhile partners McLaren.
And here's an interesting thing: Jordan claims that Mercedes's attempts to woo Michael "started with a meeting between Michael, Ross Brawn and Daimler chief executive officer Dieter Zetsche at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix." This claim was corroborated on Sunday by Willi Weber, latterly Schumacher's manager, who said he was "sure that Schumacher had had talks with Dr Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz and Norbert Haug, who runs the company’s motor-sport division, at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix."
At Abu Dhabi? Reports that Button could be lured to McLaren had surfaced in the week after he secured the World Championship in Brazil, but still it seemed that an agreement between Button and Brawn/Mercedes was a mere formality. As Ross Brawn commented at the time, "We are working with Jenson to find a balance between what we can afford and what he feels is fair for his status and what he can contribute in the future...You are never 100% but I would say 99% [certain it will happen]."
The possibility of Button switching to McLaren was interpreted as a mutually convenient negotiating ploy: it let Brawn/Mercedes know that Button had another option, and it let McLaren candidate Kimi Raikkonen know that McLaren too had other options. Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug, for one, was rather dismissive of the possibility that Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton could end up in the same team: "I do understand that people in England are dreaming of an English team with two world champions in the cockpits... However, dreams don't always come true."
By Abu Dhabi, however, Haug and Mercedes were apparently considering the loss of Button as a serious prospect, and began exploring the Schumacher option before Button put pen to paper with McLaren.
Both Mercedes and McLaren now claim that money was not an issue, that Mercedes offered Button the £8 million a year salary he was seeking, and that McLaren ultimately granted Jenson a deal worth less than Mercedes were offering. This, however, is not the point. Whilst Mercedes's final offer matched Button's salary requirements, the initial deal which Brawn/Mercedes offered to Jenson was only £4 million. This constituted little advance on the reduced salary which Jenson had voluntarily accepted to keep the team afloat when Honda pulled out at the end of 2008, and Jenson probably perceived this as something of a slight. By the time that Jenson was escorted on a tour of the Sir Norman Foster-designed McLaren Technology Centre (MTC) at Woking, the damage may already have been done.
To understand the effect this may have had on Jenson, it's worth recalling the words of Ron Dennis, speaking to Nigel Roebuck in late 2001 (Autosport, December 20-27, p23) before the opening of the MTC:
We were looking for perfection, so we didn't want [MTC] to look out over any buildings. When people are working there, all they'll see out of the windows is fields and trees...I believe that good technical resources attract the best people like a magnet...OK, they want money - and money becomes like a rate card...You measure yourself in financial terms - yes, it affects your lifestyle, but primarily it's a reflection of how good or bad you are. The best people get the most money - that should just be common sense. And once you've satisfied that desire, you've got to give them the best facilities.
So perhaps, then, the picture is as follows: Brawn/Mercedes made an offer which undervalued Button's services, at which point Jenson's management team made contact with McLaren to develop some negotiating leverage; in response, Brawn/Mercedes tried to cover the possibility of losing their new World Champion by developing an interest in Michael Schumacher; already offended by the comparatively low nature of the salary on offer, Button possibly became aware of Mercedes's apparent attempt to seduce Schumacher out of retirement, and decided to take the McLaren offer seriously; Jenson's eyes were then opened by the yin and the yang of the McLaren Technology Centre, and he reciprocated the interest of his new suitor, irrespective of salary.