The big news in the world of Formula 1 over the past week was undoubtedly Lewis Hamilton’s decision to leave McLaren at the end of the 2012 season to join Mercedes, with Sergio Perez taking his place with the British team. Hamilton’s decision to swap Woking for Brackley has divided opinion with many fans questioning the decision and questioning the 2008 world drivers’ champion motivations. It’s not only Hamilton and Perez’s respective moves that have created a media storm, though. The knock on effect of those two moves has reignited speculation around the rest of the driver market.
Let’s start with the obvious and look briefly at Hamilton’s decision to leave the team that he’s been with since the age of 13 in favour of a new challenge at Mercedes. The move certainly didn’t come out of the blue; speculation about a possible move to Mercedes for Hamilton blew up at Monza, as BBC analyst and former Formula 1 team owner, Eddie Jordan broke news of an “imminent” deal between the two parties. Three weeks on and Jordan has been proved right, with Hamilton’s three year contract with the German works team being formally announced by Mercedes on Friday.
Even before the deal was signed many were accusing Hamilton of being driven by greed, with rumours of a higher salary on offer from Mercedes, and more freedom to exploit lucrative image rights. While it is certainly true that Hamilton will have greater latitude to make his own private sponsorship deals with Mercedes – he was restricted to a single personal sponsor at McLaren – it soon emerged that the basic salary on offer from Mercedes was, at best, no more than that on offer from McLaren.
Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn revealed to Sky that “Lewis didn’t come here because we offered more money – because we didn’t”, and went on to say that “I think for Lewis, the attraction was being part of that building structure – the creation of the team. Not walking into a ready formed, successful package; it was being part of the process of building that package. I think he felt that that was the next stage of his career”.
It’s hard to say that this is not a perfectly reasonable motivation for Hamilton. We mustn’t forget that we’re dealing with a driver that’s looking to cement a reputation as one of the best in Formula 1. It’s no secret that he wants to win multiple championships, like his great hero Ayrton Senna. While the relative competitiveness of McLaren and Mercedes this season would suggest that his best chance of doing that is by staying at the team that currently has the faster car, i.e. McLaren, it is certainly very hard to know what the future will hold next year and beyond.
It’s easy to forget that there is a big regulation change coming in 2014, which will level the playing field and which is bound to mix up the current pecking order. It’s also easily forgotten that the last time there was a big change in the regulations, in 2009, Brawn GP – the team that is now Mercedes – won both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
Of course, we’re now dealing with a substantially different team from the one that arose from the ashes of Honda, but the technical team has now been restructured with key personnel now recruited, in place, and ready to make the most of the forthcoming change in regulations. Mercedes will also have the advantage of having the earliest possible access to information about the new 1.6 litre V6 turbo engines that the teams will be using in 2014. While using the same engines, McLaren certainly won’t have quite the same access as they’re now effectively a customer team.
Parallels can certainly be made with Michael Schumacher’s decision to leave Benetton for Ferrari in 1996 after winning two consecutive world drivers’ championships for the former, while the latter was uncompetitive. While Schumacher moved and the technical team followed, though, Hamilton has the advantage of being the last piece of the puzzle. He’ll step into a fully formed team under the leadership of the man behind all of Michael Schumacher’s seven world drivers’ championships, Ross Brawn.
Indeed, with all due respect to Michael Schumacher, who is certainly no longer the driver that swept all before him at Benetton and Ferrari, all that Mercedes were missing was a proven race and championship winning driver. They’ve certainly got that with the signing of Lewis Hamilton, a man who is “the best driver in the world” according to triple world drivers champion Niki Lauda, who is joining Mercedes as a board member.
While Mercedes have gained what might be the missing ingredient that’s needed to enable the team to win world championships, McLaren will certainly be disappointed to have lost someone who they’ve nurtured over the last 14 years. They didn’t dwell too long on the loss, however, moving swiftly to sign Sergio Perez from Sauber and even announcing the move before Hamilton had officially been confirmed as having signed for Mercedes. Certainly in Perez, McLaren have signed a driver with massive potential who will now be well placed to challenge more often for race wins in the future. It will certainly be interesting to see how the young Mexican measure up against 2009 world drivers’ champion Jenson Button, who will surely be considered the de-facto team leader at McLaren from 2013.
With seats now locked down at Mercedes and McLaren, and Michael Schumacher undecided about whether he’ll continue driving after the end of his contract with Mercedes, the Hamilton and Perez moves have certainly kicked off a fresh round of speculation about which drivers will be at which teams in 2013. There’s now a definite vacancy at Sauber, and given the performance of that team in 2012, it may well be one that’s in much greater demand in 2013. Schumacher has been strongly linked with that seat, with team boss Peter Sauber being quoted in Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport as saying “I would take him immediately”. I find it hard to believe that Schumacher would make that move, though.
Felipe Massa’s future at Ferrari is also far from certain and there has even been some speculation that Schumacher could take the Brazilian’s place and rejoin the team with which he won five of his seven world drivers’ championships. I can’t see that happening either, though. It would certainly be quite a come down for Schumacher to have to play the supporting role at the Scuderia, having been the undisputed lead driver is his pomp. There are also conflicting reports that Massa will, despite a truly horrendous fist part of the season, retain his drive at Ferrari, or that Nico Hulkenburg has already been signed from Force India to replace him.
If that last rumour is true, then we have a seat available at Force India, and possibly one at Caterham, too, should reports that Vitaly Petrov has run out of money prove to be true. Add that to the confirmed vacancy at Sauber and there will certainly be some seats available to be filled. Should Massa leave Ferrari, a return to Sauber looks to be the most likely move for him, but what of the possible Force India and Caterham vacancies?
When we add to the mix the possible promotion of Williams reserve driver Valtteri Bottas to the seat currently occupied by Bruno Senna, that means that Senna, and his not inconsiderable sponsorship backing, will be available to move. Might he fill one of the possible vacancies at Force India or Caterham? We also have the possible returns of Jaime Alguersuari, who is “sure” he will be driving in F1 in 2013, and former Force India driver Adrian Sutil, as well as the possible entry of GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi to consider.
As ever in F1, there’s a shortage of seats, but no shortage of drivers eager to fill them. It looks like, despite the moves of Hamilton and Perez, there’s still plenty of fuel for the silly season fire.