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Gilles Villeneuve's F1 contract with McLaren, (Image Credit: Auto123)

F1’s most contentious contract disputes

Moving teams can be exciting for a driver and spice up the competitive order. But what happens when negotiations get tricky?

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Moving teams can provide drivers with a fresh start and outlook. Whether a new challenge or to escape a toxic environment, contract negotiations are a challenging hurdle.

George Russell’s contract negotiations while staged did reveal how F1 contracts usually start (Image Credit: Sports Illustrated)

As the Oscar Piastri saga continues, it is worth remembering that F1 driver moves can sometimes be more complex than a game of chess. A running joke in the sport is that F1 contracts are not worth the paper they are printed on. This is because usually a legal loophole can be found in the wording for both team and driver. A performance clause is one example, triggered by agreed terms of finishing in a certain championship position.

An incredibly backhanded business, F1 contract negotiations operate in the shadows. George Russell discovering his Mercedes drive in Drive Survive behind a stack of tyres is clear staging for drama.  But there is truth that conversations happen in the paddock. Representatives for teams have initial discussions in an isolated area. It is a decades-old practice, even with the advent of emails and messengers. It is simply business.

After various legal drafts, most deals go through without issue, sometimes coming as a shock. Fernando Alonso’s move to Aston Martin is a case of a fast-moving situation, The Spaniard and his team moved quickly, discussions no doubt taking place during the Hungarian GP.

But there are occasions, such as with Piastri and McLaren, that this does not go to plan. A team will dispute that a driver is leaving them, and will push for them to stay. Risk is involved with this, as the chances a team will get 100% from them is minimal. The simple answer to why a team contests a driver move is one word, money. Involving serious cash, a contract leaves a team out of pocket and chasing compensation if they feel it is due.

Two high-profile cases have rocked the F1 world in the last thirty years, with countless others in the years after.  Below is an example of when a driver pushes to leave and lose.

Jenson Button: BAR to Williams, 2005
Jenson Button in the BAR 007 during the 2005 season (Image Credit: F1-fansite.com)

Button was riding the crest of a wave in 2004. He and BAR proved to be the closest challenger to the all-conquering Ferrari, at the pinnacle of its power. By the time of the summer break, Button had a raft of podiums and a pole position to his name. But he confound the F1 world by announcing he would be returning to Williams for 2005. The legendary outfit was in decline by this point. Although results were still strong, BAR was by far the more competitive option.

The eponymous Frank Williams before Button’s departure at the end of the 2000 season said, “Jenson wants to come back in three years, for two more years”. Button’s management team worked on taking him out of BAR.  Button had in fact already signed a pre-agreement with Williams.

Recalling the bizarre incident, Dave Richards told The Race that the tone in conversations about Button’s contract extension had suddenly changed. Focus had fallen on Honda’s engine supply from 2006 onwards.  The sudden focus on his team’s engine supply alarmed Richards:

“I’d got a little sniff of something going on,”

“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.”

Frank Williams meanwhile, remained resolute. Williams announced Button in the run-up to the Hungarian GP, stating “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.”

Both sides lay claim to Button’s services, with the British driver now in the position of driving for two teams the following season. Honda’s engine supply was the loophole.  At that stage although a formality, had yet to be fully rubber-stamped for 2006.

The saga played out in the media for all to see, with the term “I can’t comment” becoming Button’s default answer to the media during briefing sessions. Button never actually engaged with Richards during the process. Once Button learned that Honda planned to integrate into BAR and that BMW was leaving Williams to buy into Sauber, he decided to get out of the deal. Firing his management, he tasked their replacement to find a way out of this deal. Frank Williams refused to budge, and Button forced to pay an eye-popping exit fee.

Button said of the attempted move:  “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.” Given how the teams’ pathways differed so spectacularly in the following seasons, Button may be glad this was one move that did not work out.  He may have won the title with Brawn, but that team was effectively a lighter version of BAR, which became Honda in 2006. Williams meanwhile entered a slump that it never recovered from, despite finishing P3 in 2014 at the start of the turbo hybrid era.

Jean Alesi: Ferrari to Williams, 1991
Jean Alesi’s time at Ferrari is iconic in F1 history (Image Credit: Scuderia Ferrari on Twitter)

Revered in F1 for his days at Ferrari and Bennetton, Jean Alesi is a firm favourite amongst the Tifosi, and even today still holds close ties with Ferrari.  Alesi’s raw speed defined his career. The Frenchman in his Tyrrell challenged the legendary Ayrton Senna for the lead of the US GP in his first full season after debuting in 1989. It was only a matter of time before one of the big teams picked him up, Alesi signing for Ferrari.

His time at the Scuderia was fraught with reliability trouble. Before 1994, Ferrari had not won a race since 1990. Williams became an all-conquering force. But Alesi’s time in F1 could have been very different. Frank Williams saw Alesi as an exciting prospect and signed him for 1991, but did not announce the Frenchman immediately. This is where the situation becomes complex. Williams had initially said that he would announce Alesi was moving to the British marque at the French Grand Prix.

The reasoning behind the delay was a triangle of canvassing and exploratory discussions was taking place. Williams was speaking to Senna over a drive. Senna in turn negotiated with McLaren over an extension, as well as Ferrari as another option. Alesi was in discussions with Tyrrell over an extension and had now signed for Williams.

The situation was a web of tangled negotiations behind tyre blankets in the paddock, and insincere reassurances by all. Governed by self-interest, someone was always going to come off worse. But drivers and teams are at the mercy of the driver market. When a move is made, a domino effect ripples up and down the grid. Nigel Mansell did this in 1990, announcing he was walking away from Ferrari. Williams pounced and began courting the British legend.

Alesi by this point had already demanded that the deal for him to move to Williams be made at British Grand Prix. No announcement came.  Alesi took matters into his own hands and at a press conference in Germany stated that he had interest from Tyrrell as well as all top teams, now including McLaren. Yet still, Williams did not budge on announcing him.

The Frenchman decided, in the end, to sign for Ferrari, replacing Mansell. Williams said he still had a valid contract with the British team, which Jean now needed to get out of. According to formula1.com Alesi chose to make a payment to Frank Williams, and gifted him a Ferrari F1 car. The domino effect then completed itself. Mansell signed for Williams, and Alesi began a long career for the Scuderia, with Senna opting to stay at McLaren.

Never learning their lessons
Daniel Ricciardo has become a pawn in the 2022 driver market (Image Credit: Men’s Health)

These driver moves were contentious and highly political. Both involved drivers wanting to make moves, but both were unsuccessful. Button and Alesi’s careers could have been very different had the moves happened. In both scenarios, a shock in the paddock drove the negotiations. For Button, it was the impending move of Juan Pablo Montoya. The fallout triggered by the upcoming vacant seat at Williams pushed Alesi into his negotiations. It is an unfortunate truth, but drivers can be pawns in a game of cat and mouse, as teams push for the best drivers to drive their cars.

This brings us back to the present. The lessons of 1991 and 2005 have clearly not been learnt.  Alpine and McLaren have supposedly laid claim to the reigning Formula 2 Champion Oscar Piastri.  The Australian is now at the mercy of the Contract Recognition Board, as Button was. Piastri has acted in what he believes is his best interest, but the silence from McLaren is now deafening.

Every day that goes past indicates a hugely complex situation developing over Piastri’s future. Daniel Ricciardo finds himself as a pawn in this battle but holds a huge tactical advantage. Ricciardo can name the price, and hold negotiations to ransom if he chooses. Only he can activate his exit clause, which shows a real lack of foresight from McLaren.

While teams and drivers continue to work in the shadows, situations like Piastri and McLaren will continue to rock F1 every decade. F1 is always a game of cat and mouse, but seldom has a driver held as much power as Daniel Ricciardo. Regardless of how the Piastri saga ends, it will be remembered as one of the all-time contentious political driver contract disputes in F1.

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