Hamilton’s move and the domino effect

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.

Lewis Hamilton
Bahrain GP, 21 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sergio Perez, Sauber C31,
Malaysian GP, 23 March 2012
By Morio via Wikimedia Commons

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?

Adrian Sutil, Force India VMJ04
Malaysian GP, 9 April 2011
By Morio via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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8 thoughts on “Hamilton’s move and the domino effect

  1. Excellent post. I think the problem with Hamilton is he started at the top. He should have has a year or two in a lesser team then drove for McLaren. He’s had it too easy. I think this is a step backwards for him.

    • Thanks very much.

      I think it’s a little harsh to suggest that Hamilton shouldn’t have gone straight in to McLaren given his brilliant performances in GP2 in 2006. He also proved that he deserved the drive by going head to head with, and beating, Fernando Alonso.

      I also think that it’s too early to say that the move to Mercedes is a step backwards. On the face of it, that would clearly be right but, as I’ve mentioned, the future in F1 is hard to predict. I expect Mercedes to get much stronger, especially from 2014. Time will tell…

      • Excellent article, thanks for that!

        i think you are right about Mercedes, next year might be a struggle for Lewis, but from 2014 Mercedes definitely have an advantage over McLaren, who are basically “just” paying customers by then, and Mercedes themselves will have first hand.

        Apart from that, i think Lewis’ move was a gutsy one, the boy has become a man, time to make his own decisions now, time for fresh air.
        McLaren can build race winning cars, but winning championships seems a lot harder for them, Lewis took on “project” Mercedes, like Schumacher with Ferrari, and Alonso (hopefully) with Ferrari.
        Not taking the easy way, but taking a risk and feeling confident enough that he (and the engineers of course) can make the Merc the silver arrow it once was, deserves a lot of respect.
        I’m a Ferrari fan, but i wish Lewis all the best, hope to see him battling it out with Alonso as soon as possible.

        Just a little offtopic Rob, but don’t you think McLaren should take a good look in the mirror, about the way the handle their topdrivers, both Alonso and Hamilton weren’t happy at McLaren, regardless the reason why they left, fact is, they did, basically they lost the two best formula one drivers in the world in a few years time, that should give them something to think about don’t you think?

      • Thanks very much, Enzo.

        I think that you’re right about McLaren. It certainly looks like they’ve completely mishandled the Hamilton situation and lost a top driver, with his best years ahead of him, to a team that’s likely to develop into a big rival. I think that McLaren were complacent and did too little too late to retain Hamilton. I’m not sure how that really compares to the situation with Alonso in 2007 – Fernando was under contract at that time, but the team had to let him leave because of a complete breakdown in relationships. I guess you could argue that they could have done more to prevent that, too.

  2. A good article Rob, with some very strong points, especially regarding Valterri Bottas – why he isn’t already in F1 really does confuse me – I expect him to replace Senna next season.

    However while many do feel the future looks rosy for Hamilton and Mercedes – I am one of those doubters, and here’s why.

    Outside of Maranello, no manufacturer that has entered F1 has ever had any great success as a team no matter how big or small they have been – Honda, Toyota and BMW being the most recent examples. They had good technical teams and more money they can shake a stick at, however all 3 pulled the plug on their respective programs due to lack of results. what is so different at Mercedes?

    Yes they have signed the concorde agreement up until 2020 now, however like the other big manufacturers decisions eventually will not be made by the race team, but the board of members back at the head Office in Germany – not something private teams need to worry about I.E. Force India, Williams and McLaren.

    Then of course we have the tale of 2014 reg changes and the prospect of Mercedes being totally dominant due to being a works team. However, how do we know that the Mercedes TURBO engine will be the dominant force it is in N/A form? Mercedes have the least experience on the grid with turbo engines from past Formula 1, and with both Ferrari and Renault both commited to building great turbo units – might it be all false promises? Renault of course will be working very closely with Adrian Newey due to the RedBull team featuring total factory backed support and you would be seriously misplaced to not consider them a threat.

    This of course leaves McLaren and Hamilton, Due to Macca being a “customer” they have free will as to which engines they can choose to use, if indeed th Mercedes turbo engine is not what it has been billed to be, it leaves McLaren free to go and choose the best possible unit for them.

    In history when a driver has left a top team to join an ambitious project they have failed, Lauda did it with Brabham in the 80’s, Damon Hill famously turned down Williams and WDC car for Arrows, Jacques for BAR who followed money and of course James Hunt with Wolf back in the 70’s and Prost in 1990/1991 with Ferrari – all failed.

    While the future cannot be determined by the past, we can definitely look to it to predict what will happen, and based on previous evidence you would be hard pressed to declare Hamilton will succeed greatly at the Brackley outfit (who have steadily gone backwards in terms of dev since 2010) Hedging your bets on a change of regulations is a massive gamble and could either inspire or ruin his career. Ross Brawn did not design the 2009 WDC car and only inherited it from Honda who obviously had pulled out after 2008 and looked to exploit the gimmick as much as possible (Double Diffuser) – to place emphasis on him being the key is extremely risky.

    • Thanks very much, James.

      You’re completely right, of course, about the failed experiences of the big manufacturers, other than Ferrari, in F1. However, although you’ve included Honda in your list I’d actually say that they are an exception – they got it right in 2009, but unfortunately for them, they lost their bottle and pulled out before the car – that went on to win both championships as Brawn GP – had even turned a wheel. What would have happened had Honda not pulled the plug? I’d suggest that that team, without the need to completely dismantle and restructure core parts of the team, could easily have become a dominant force. Of course, that team is now Mercedes.

      On the engine points, it’s very true that Ferrari and Renault will be pushing hard to delivery great turbo units and we’ll only really see who has the best engine once we get going in 2014. However, I understand that McLaren’s contract for Mercedes engines runs until 2015, which means, I think, that the deal would run out at around the same time as Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes. So, that would mean that Lewis is no worse off at Mercedes if their engine turns out to be a dud – he could move on at the end of his contract, just as McLaren could switch engine suppliers.

      To be honest, though, it’s beyond me why McLaren don’t make their own engines as they’re now doing with their road cars. With PURE going bust they have the perfect opportunity to buy an F1 2014 spec engine that was being dyno tested and develop it…

  3. Some great points there,thanks. While many may see Lewis’ move as a big risk, the 2014 engines factor plays a big role. I’m slightly concerned, however, by new comments from Bernie Ecclestone that he hates the idea of the new engines. While Bernie doesn’t strictly make the rules, we know he has a way of getting what he wants.

    Concerning Sergio Perez, I wondered what your thoughts are on his results possibly being more thanks to the Sauber C31 than to his ability? Already there are doom-forecasters who predict a tough 2013 for McLaren with Checo partnering Jenson.

    Also, what do you think Williams will do concerning their 2013 line-up? Would it be better to stick with the erratic but quick Pastor or boot him? Perhaps Bruno should be kept too, after all, despite not being that quick he has scored some fair points? And where does Mr. Bottas fit into the plans?

    Thank you for some great thoughts, keep it up!

    • Thanks very much.

      On engines, I’d be massively surprised if we don’t have the new 1.6 V6 turbos from 2014. The engine manufacturers have gone to great expense to develop them and I just can’t see that being wasted. I’m sure there’ll be nothing wrong with the engines, too. They might sounds a bit different, but as with all the other changes in F1, we’ll get used to it pretty quickly.

      I think that Perez is a very good driver who has enjoyed the benefits of a pretty good car in the Sauber C31. I think he’ll do well at McLaren and I’ll be very interested to see how he measures up to Button in the same equipment. I wouldn’t automatically assume that Button will have it all his own way in 2013.

      As for Williams, I think that they’ll retain Maldonado for the sponsorship money if nothing else. Maldonado’s definitely quick, but too hot headed for me. How he managed to get away without a ban is beyond me. I feel sorry for Senna, he’s performed well this season, but without the spectacular result that his team-mate managed in Barcelona. Missing some of the Friday free practice sessions certainly hasn’t helped him and my gut feeling is that Bottas will get his seat in 2013. If that’s the case, I hope that Senna finds himself a seat elsewhere. He deserves to be in F1.

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