I’ll put it out there straight away. I’m a big fan of Lewis Hamilton. I think that his talent in the car is incredible, and watching him put it to work is fascinating. He’s in many ways like Jean Alesi: talented but troubled. A Juan Pablo Montoya for this generation. I’m also a big fan of McLaren. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Ron Dennis, who has steered the organisation through forty years of change and conflict. Martin Whitmarsh has taken the reins brilliantly, and consistently gives great TV interviews. So Hamilton leaving McLaren is in many ways for me similar to when Colin McRae left Subaru for Ford. When favourite driver leaves favourite team, what’s a fan to do?
That being said, I’m finding the press/Twitter/forum comments on Friday’s driver market news very interesting. If you’ve been living on Mars recently, you may not know that Lewis Hamilton is to leave McLaren at the end of 2012 and join Mercedes. Lewis’s McLaren seat will be filled by Sergio Perez, and Lewis is chucking Michael Schumacher out of his Mercedes.
Going to Mercedes
If rumour is correct, Mercedes are paying Hamilton a lot of money. The deal is for three years, and it’s reputedly worth $100m (according to The Daily Telegraph). This would probably make Hamilton the most richly rewarded driver ever. (Footnote: It can be difficult to track this accurately, but I think that Schumacher, Alonso and Raikkonen have all been paid $26m per season by Ferrari. I’m not aware of any drivers getting more than this)
Because of this, the wide-scale perception is that Hamilton has gone to Mercedes to chase the dollar. If that’s true, it’s difficult to criticise. F1 drivers have a short career, and therefore limited opportunity to earn top-dollar that they must then live on for the remaining 60 years of their life. Also, in F1 circles, money equals value. And ranking the drivers by earnings is a sure-fire way to compare how each is valued against the other. The dollar is the ultimate leveller, the ultimate arbiter of that value.
But I’ve followed Formula 1 for a number of years now. And I’m seeing something that the cash-obsessed commentators seem to have forgotten. The simple fact of life is that Michael Schumacher won 7 F1 World Championships and Jenson Button 1, under Ross Brawn’s stewardship. That’s not even counting the sportscar success with TWR Jaguar. Nobody would ever say that a driver goes to Red Bull “for the money,” with that team, everyone would acknowledge the design team led by Adrian Newey. So why is Ross Brawn being dissed? People are blinded by money.
Furthermore, Mercedes has had the best engine in F1 for the entire duration of the 2.4 V8 regulations. In 2014, the regulations change again, and by aligning himself with the AMG Mercedes F1 team, Hamilton has guaranteed that he’ll get first dibs on any new trick engines coming out. He will probably have design input so that right from the very start the torque maps suit his driving style.
When signing deals, drivers need to work out not which team is best now, but which will bebest when they’re at full-strength in the new deal. It’s crystal ball stuff.
The big thing (for me, at least, as a McLaren fan) is the question of why Lewis would leave the Woking team that nurtured him from the gawky yet precocious teenager that marched up to Ron Dennis and asked for a drive.
Leaving aside McLaren’s image as a corporate drone machine, I think that it’s possible Lewis is looking for a different challenge. Maybe he’s seen the 8 world championships that Ross Brawn has architected, and decided he fancies some of that action. Maybe the fact that Mercedes engine boss Norbert Haug spends all his time with the AMG outfit is having an impact. But these are reasons to join Mercedes, not ones to leave McLaren.
There has been a definite cooling of the McLaren-Mercedes relationship in recent years. Some say it’s because of McLaren releasing their MP4-12c road car straight into the path of Mercedes’ SLS. I’m not so sure that it’s so petty. I think it’s that Mercedes wants its own F1 team carrying its own name to be successful. But the upshot is that McLaren is no longer the favoured Mercedes partner. In 2012, it has started paying for the Mercedes V8s, and that’s a cash hole that even the massive McLaren would notice.
And for how long will McLaren remain “Vodafone McLaren Mercedes”? I’m not sure I believe that the Woking outfit is working on its own power plants, but I’m fairly certain that Vodafone is on its way out. If not of F1 as a whole, then almost certainly out of McLaren. Vodafone has terminated extraordinarily successful sponsorship arrangements with the Triple Eight V8 Supercar team, and with the Australian national cricket team. And it has been absent from the rear wings of the McLaren F1 cars for a while now. It all points to a staged pull-out from McLaren that will leave them hunting a new title sponsor.
That’s not where a driver wants to be. Title sponsors and manufacturer engine partners are talismans in F1. A team without one or the other is wounded. And a team without both is in for a spell in the doldrums. Could that be McLaren in 2014? Just as Mercedes starts bringing its new-spec engines online? To its Brackley in-house team first?
Bye Bye Michael (reprise)
It’s been fun but the time has come
To bring down the final curtain move along
Time to face what you know in your heart
That the world keeps on turning, you’ve lost your part
It is never ending
Take a look if you’re not sure at the millions gone before
It’s been hard when the going is rough
Or you’re many thousand miles away from home
To believe that it’s all worthwhile
That it makes the slightest difference in the end
And it gets harder
Will you stay until you’re pushed
Or will the day dawn when you’re on your own?
You look around
There’s only empty rows of chairs
Where once your fair weather friends
Hung on every word that you said
TONY BANKS – THE FINAL CURTAIN LYRICS
Michael Schumacher’s F1 career has had something of everything in it. Records have been smashed, and world championships won with different teams. It was Schumacher who finally wrested Scuderia Ferrari F1 from its autophagic political nightmare. Even the mighty Jean Todt required the services of the German for that, and Ferrari was required to put aside its innate Italian-ness in order to reattain the success of the past. Of course, Schumacher then rewarded the Scuderia with five world championships. They subsequently won a sixth with Raikkonen, and look set fair to take a seventh with Alonso in 2012.
But – while the circumstances of Schumacher’s departure from the Scuderia were not respectful – Schumacher’s second bite of the F1 cherry has ultimately failed to deliver much of the spark for which he was known in his first time around. Some spirited driving in the Mercedes has been evident, but being reunited with Brawn in a German works team has not enabled Schumacher to reach his former greatness once more. Neither, to be fair, has he been demolished by Nico Rosberg, but it does seem like Rosberg is usually better-placed to take advantage of opportunities. It is Rosberg who has delivered AMG Mercedes’s only Grand Prix win of the current era. Meanwhile, Schumacher’s error rate is too high. It says something of the respect that the F1 world still has for him that while similarly crashy Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado are being hung out to dry, Schumacher is being gently ignored, like an elderly relative who’s developed late-onset Tourette’s. And while the Italian press lines up to castigate the off-the-pace Felipe Massa, still the Germans hope for a late resurgence by their ageing hero.
It’s time for Michael to go. But has he once again been denied the opportunity to retire of his own volition? A sad end to his career.
A Matter of Opinion on “Too Young”
One of the Sauber-Ferrari drivers has made a real impression this year. Not just for car speed, but for maturity of driving. Sergio “Checo” Perez came to Sauber riding the crest of a wave of Telmex cash. And he has come close to winning two Grands Prix this year. In each case he’s done it by being able to overtake cars on track, and being able to work leftfield strategies to his advantage. In fact, it appears that his car speed is a little lacking, certainly over one lap, as he is often in the teens in qualifying. The fact that he’s beaten the “works” Ferraris on a number of occasions (including at the Italian Grand Prix) is remarkable.
Not quite as remarkable as Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo saying he was “too young” for graduation to the Scuderia. Massa is in desperate need of being put out to pasture, and Perez looks very much the up-and-comer. But Ferrari passed, and McLaren didn’t. It does rather look like McLaren has made the better choice here. Perez has something to offer, and contemporary McLaren will be able to shape and nurture him to bring him on. Formula 1 is all about seizing the opportunities when they’re presented, and that is true for teams just as much as it is for personnel. I suspect Ferrari could rue the day they let him slip. Presumably just as BMW/Sauber did when they let a young Sebastien Vettel go test a Red Bull.
The One Left Out in the Cold
Someone in all of this has got to be feeling pretty sore. Paul di Resta has been in Sahara Force India, and doing a great job. He’s seen off the talented Nico Hulkenburg, and has delivered a number of very mature performances in Mercedes’ junior team, frequently transcending the car or working around its failures. He must have felt he was a shoo-in for whichever Mercedes seat was vacated by the Hamilton/Schumacher switcheroo, but that’s not happened. No seat appeared at Mercedes, and McLaren snapped up Perez, leaving di Resta out in the wilderness. Paul’s managers should be on the phone to Maranello right about now…
There comes a time in every F1 season where the anticipation of next season is at least as strong as the excitement at the remainder of the current. I think we’re at that point now. There’s a liberal smattering of great drivers across the top four teams, and the stage is set fair for some epic contests. Friday’s changes are, in my opinion, most definitely for the better.