Lewis Hamilton joins Mercedes for 2013: The Potential Winners And Losers
The dust might be settling on the news that Lewis Hamilton is leaving McLaren but the fall-out is only just beginning. Who will be the ultimate winners and losers?
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 04/10/12 7:33am
Mercedes F1 Team
They've just pulled off the coup of the decade. The price might be considerable - £45m over three years is a conservative guesstimate of Hamilton's remuneration package - but Mercedes have negotiated an absolute bargain. Signing away Hamilton's image rights is a small compensation to pay. Their new box office star would be cheap at twice the price because the benefits are bountiful and worth a small fortune.
In luring Lewis out of McLaren, Mercedes F1 have secured their own future in the sport (see below), acquired a box office spearhead to lead their assault on F1's 'big three' (one of whom they've already substantially weakened in the process of signing their new team leader), and landed a top-tier driver at the peak of his powers - according to Martin Brundle, Hamilton is already the "quickest driver in F1". And at the age of 27, his best years should still be in front of him.
The salient 'but' is Mercedes' hitherto failure to build a winning package. In acquiring Hamilton, a proven race and championship winner, they've left themselves no room for excuses. It's now or never for the team to deliver, but what greater incentive could there be than knowing that, if the team do their bit in the factory, they have a driver who is guaranteed to deliver on the track?
Just as Hamilton was probably waiting on Mercedes to sign the latest Concorde Agreement before committing his future to them, Mercedes, hitherto reputed to be doubting the point of continuing in F1, were probably waiting for confirmation from Hamilton that he wished to commit before they followed suit.
If so, it's easy to understand why. Hamilton is a marquee name on and off the track, and a sponsors' dream who will thrust Mercedes into the welcome glare of publicity. From the fringes of F1, Mercedes have been thrust into limelight usually only reserved for pre-established major players.
And suddenly, their expensive foray into F1 as a fully-fledged outfit makes considerably more financial sense. Indeed, given that Hamilton is being paid less than Schumacher received over the last three years, the team have probably improved their prospects of success - be that race victories and/or world titles - by upwards of twenty per cent whilst reducing the size of their overall budget.
Signing Hamilton isn't good business, it's a steal.
The F1 team's all-German line-up has been replaced by a pairing with an international appeal and adorned by a publicity magnet. If you want to sell more cars, Hamilton is just the ticket.
The 2013 Season
Next year has just lucked into the unmissable first installment of the storyline that could define the next half-decade.
Red Bull and Ferrari
Mercedes are not yet a threat - and probably won't be until 2014 at the earliest - whereas McLaren always are. Their closest rivals will thus welcome their weakening even if it is at the potential future cost of making Mercedes a frontrunner.
As Bernie Ecclestone will appreciate better than anyone, Hamilton's transfer is better than good business: it's a goldmine. Talk of Mercedes leaving F1 has been muted, the sport has spread its World Champions evenly across five teams (six if Schumacher moves to Sauber), and 2014 is already essential viewing for the fascination of discovering whether Hamilton has made an inspired gamble or driven his career up a cul-de-sac.
Lewis Hamilton The Celebrity
As evidenced by the unanimity that the deal Hamilton has signed will pay less than his current contract at McLaren, and that McLaren were willing to match the offer tabled by Mercedes, there is far more to Hamilton's transfer than mere money.
It's also about a fresh start, leaving the family nest, fragile relationships, new challenges and 2014's rewriting of the engine regulations. And it's also about image rights, commercial opportunities and confirmation of what Hamilton first signalled when he appointed XIX, an entertainment agency, as his advisers: a determination to be more than 'just' a F1 driver.
The attraction of Mercedes isn't merely that they will loosen the shackles that McLaren have applied or even that they will let him control his own image. Their pull is also their name: a world-respected global brand of precisely the type that Hamilton is aspiring to be.
Sergio Perez is a talent not to be underestimated. But he is not as fast as Hamilton, and nor does he have Hamilton's experience or winning pedigree. In short, the youngster is a far less daunting proposition to partner, and the odds on Jenson landing the 2013 championship will plunge if McLaren start next season with a fast car.
Welcome to the big time. Although preliminary talks will have been held over the summer, the fact that Perez was signed, sealed and delivered as a McLaren driver within forty-eight hours of Hamilton informing the team of his departure is revealing. When the door to an unexpected promotion was thrown open, he bolted through without a moment's hesitation. It bodes well.
With Perez, indisputably the best of the current crop of up-and-comings, out of the running to take Massa's seat, the Brazilian appears safe for another year. Whether Felipe deserves another season is a moot point, but an explanation for why Ferrari kept on defying the overwhelming evidence of 2012 by disparaging Perez as "too inexperienced" has at least become easily agreeable.
The 2013 Driver Market
It's now open for all remaining business to be completed.
How many titles have McLaren won since the turn of the decade? That's easy: just the one, Hamilton's last-corner triumph of 2008. How many great drivers have they lost in the last decade? Hmm. That's more difficult. Three? Four? Montoya, Raikkonen, Alonso and Hamilton?
Whitmarsh isn't solely responsible for McLaren's travails, but he's the man who will have to burden the responsibility of losing the team's star asset and face the consequences if McLaren don't return to winning ways this year or in the next.
The first wonder has to be whether they overplayed their hand by underestimating the possibility that Hamilton would still leave once Red Bull had re-signed Mark Webber. Could they have closed the deal even before Mercedes made their play? As The Guardian has noted, 'There is every sign that they were too complacent about the dangers before them, dangers that the team principal Martin Whitmarsh dismissed as "fantasy" while stating that his outfit had "no Plan B" in the event of losing their star driver.'
The second is whether McLaren have proved their own worst enemies. Is it a coincidence that Hamilton confirmed his departure in the week that followed his retirement from the Singapore GP? Did Hamilton suddenly figure that if he couldn't win the title - which he probably won't - with McLaren in a year in which they had the fastest car then there wasn't much point hanging around and he should try something different?
Regardless of whatever the exact reason for Hamilton's departure - and there probably isn't an exact reason, just a combination of factors - its bottom line still amounts to a snub. And to compound the pain, it doesn't make much sense either. Had Hamilton gone to Red Bull or Ferrari then at least McLaren could have appreciated the obvious reasoning. But Mercedes? With just one victory - a feat reduced to fluke by its solitude - in three years? That will really sting.
Whilst the rejection will hurt, the realisation that the comeback - even if it continues on a lower rung - will almost certainly end without another victory will scar.
Though Schumacher's return has been frequently misunderstood - he missed the sport, and he's found it fun since returning - and unfairly derided - he's out-qualified Rosberg this season, for instance - it has lacked a purpose and, unless something dramatic occurs in the next two months, the only memorable result of Schumacher's Second Coming will be lasting reputational damage. Schumi The First deserved better.
Don't know about you, but I'm not fancying his chances much.
Lewis Hamilton The F1 Driver
Only time will tell if he has made an inspired choice or driven his career up a cul-de-sac.
In the meantime, it's fair to say that the 27-year-old has taken an almighty gamble in fixing his future to a team without much of a history (in its current guise at least). In mitigation, Mercedes should be in pole position when the new engine regulations are introduced for 2014, and if Hamilton believes he needs the challenge of being a driving-force and not just a driver then who are we to argue?
But at this stage it's hard to shake off the impression that, if we are to treat this solely as a F1 decision, Hamilton has gambled everything on a hunch which owes more to emotion than calculation.
Time can't come quickly enough.