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Jenson Button out but back for 2018? Understanding McLaren's driver line-up arrangement

Unravelling the complexity and cleverness of McLaren's "innovative and creative" driver set-up for the next two years...

What exactly have McLaren done?
Something which is at once very clever, very cunning and very careful. 

Appointing Stoffel Vandoorne as Fernando Alonso's team-mate for next season was the simple bit. McLaren's trick has been to squeeze three drivers into two seats by keeping Jenson Button on the books and simultaneously retaining 'insurance cover' in case Alonso quits F1. 

So while Button opted out for one year McLaren can opt him back in for 2018 if required. "It's innovative and creative," said team boss Ron Dennis. McLaren's sponsors will also be appeased by the retention of one of the most marketable drivers in motorsport. It's a clever three-card driver trick.

Why has Button decided to stand down?
Button says the decision to stand down for 2017 was accelerated by the "pretty awesome" summer he enjoyed during the August break.

"I came to the decision that l wanted to initiate talks with Ron at Spa," Button revealed. "Ever since we've been talking non-stop about the future."

That future now officially consists of a two-year deal in which Button will be listed as a McLaren ambassador but will effectively take on the role of reserve driver while McLaren retain a contractual option on re-appointing him as a race driver for 2018. 

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"I will also be doing stuff that l haven't done for 17 years - spending time with my friends and, more importantly, my family," Button said. "But in 2018, the team have an option for me to race."

According to McLaren, Button is both a man and a driver in need of a break from the relentless treadmill of life on F1's ever-lengthening road. "This is a very practical and logical solution," said Dennis. "Jenson will be able to get his mind balanced and relaxed. He was hankering for a break."

Just don't call this a retirement. 

"To be clear, I'm very definitely not retiring," stressed Button. 

"Jenson will be in the simulator, he will attend some races and he is contracted to race if needed," reiterated Dennis. 

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Jenson Button has revealed he will not be racing for McLaren in 2017, but will remain with the team and has an option to return in 2018

Is the 2018 option an insurance policy in case Alonso quits?
That will be the prevailing explanation for why McLaren have agreed a new year two-year deal with a driver who is standing down from driving duties. 

The prospect of Alonso quitting F1 in just over twelve months' time is very real - and so therefore is the possibility that Button will return. 

Alonso has openly admitted he has lost his love for F1 in its current guise and said last week: "Next year I finish my contract with McLaren, so I will have to make a decision if I continue in Formula 1 or not. if the cars are fun to drive, are exciting to drive, I will probably stay longer. If the cars are still giving me the feeling that I have in the last couple of years, probably I will stop."

By retaining an option on Button for 2018, McLaren have in-house, world champion-class cover in case Alonso decides to hang up his gloves. 

While not specifically referring to the potential of Alonso retiring, Dennis acknowledged: "It's the perfect solution for the circumstances which exist in our team."

Vandoorne signs up for his promotion to a full race seat in 2017. Picture courtesy of McLaren
Image: Vandoorne signs up for his promotion to a full race seat in 2017. Picture courtesy of McLaren

Could Vandoorne be dropped for Button to return?
It's possible but unlikely. McLaren consider the Belgian to be 'the most talented and exciting young driver in the sport today' and Vandoorne would have almost certainly been appointed Alonso's 2017 team-mate even if Button hadn't stood aside. 

Although refusing to divulge the length of deal the young Belgian has signed, Dennis joked "Stoffel's contract is so long it could be rolled up".

Still, it shouldn't be forgotten that McLaren also appointed Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen to rave previews in 2013 and 2014 respectively before dropping them both within a year. 

"We will see where we are in a year's time," said Dennis. "What is clear is that if Jenson is driving a Formula 1 car in 2018 it will be a McLaren."

Will Button be too old to return in 2018?
Button will be 38 in 2018. By F1 standards, that is a pensioner's age. But there aren't many other 36-year-olds as fit as Button, a renowned fitness fanatic, and there won't be many 38-year-olds as fit as him in 2018 either.

"I will stay current and will train like I've never trained before," Button vowed on Saturday night.

In addition to the inevitable triathlons and marathons, McLaren will also ensure Button keeps fully up to F1 speed in their simulator. "There is no reason why he can't come back and race in 2018," agreed Dennis. If the call comes, Button will be ready. 

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McLaren boss Ron Dennis reiterated Jenson Button has not retired from F1 following his sabbatical announcement and said he needed a mental break from F1

Could Button have joined another team for 2017?
Dennis revealed that Button had received offers from other teams for next season but had rejected them in favour of McLaren's opt out/opt in arrangement. "I have no intention of ever driving for another Formula 1 team," said Button as he quashed the notion of a romantic swansong at Williams, the team with whom he started his career almost twenty years ago. 

But there is one team Button will be driving for next season: McLaren.

"I'm contracted for both 2017 and 2018, I intend to work hard on car-development, and I'm sure I'll get behind the wheel of the new car at some point."

Just not as a full F1 race driver for the first time since 1999. 

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