Lewis Hamilton waves goodbye to McLaren

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Richard Brown takes a look at the reasons for Lewis Hamilton’s unexpected move from McLaren to Mercedes GP, why it happened, and what the future may hold for the F1 driver. 

This week finally saw the endgame to the 2012 F1 season’s most financially lucrative and prized game of musical chairs.

By leaving McLaren, Lewis Hamilton has ended a 14-year connection with the team, which has spanned back to his days as a small 10-year-old boy, where they supported him through his glittering junior karting career.

14-year-old Lewis Hamilton, posing for pictures with his McLaren painted go-kart in 1999

What has influenced Lewis Hamilton’s decision to jump ship?

Ask the face-value sports fan, more likely a Hamilton-cynic, and they will put the swap down to financial reasons, dare one say wide-eyed greed. For sure, we know that Mercedes presented Hamilton with a salary of £60 million for his 3-year-deal – of which there are supposedly clauses for healthy race win bonuses too.

McLaren, a team with not the sort of sponsorship revenue they once had a few years ago, and as a team very much championing the future of cost-effective, sustainable UK manufacturing, were only willing to offer a reported £40 million.

There were also other sticking points. Hamilton’s desire to get more flexibility in his choice of personal sponsors has always gone against McLaren’s ethos of looking after the ‘team’ sponsors. Hamilton, even in rosier times, had never particularly liked this; but with his current contract now up and offers on the table, probably didn’t have the resolve to bite his lip anymore.

Similarly, Hamilton wanted the right to keep originals of any trophies he earned (McLaren drivers are only allowed to keep replicas), which McLaren put on display in their factory. But McLaren, with the history and prestige that goes with the name were never likely to budge to such a fundamental piece of DNA preservation.

Lewis Hamilton has never been one to deny that earning money and fame has shaped how he’s approached his F1 career. From the minute he started winning success during his first season with McLaren in 2007, his cool demeanour and status as the first black professional racing driver have all contributed to elevating him to a stardom that sees him hanging out with the likes of Pharell Williams and Jay-Z. By 2008, he had even bagged himself the delectable entity of Nicole Scherzinger as his girlfriend, as well as a multi-million sponsorship contract with urban outfitter, Reebok.

Linked in to all of these commercial factors is what potential influence Hamilton’s management partner – XIX Entertainment – had in proceedings. Run by Simon Fuller, this company is the same one that oversaw David Beckham’s transfer from a stable venture at Real Madrid, to his astronomical £120 million 5-year-deal with American soccer team, L.A Galaxy. Both Mercedes and XIX Entertainment would have both known what impact having a superstar like Hamilton fronting Mercedes-Benz’ global car advertising could have, and some extra pound notes are destined to have flown around to seal the deal as a result.

What can Mercedes GP offer to Lewis Hamilton over the next 3 years?

It would be false for most people to criticise Lewis Hamilton for taking a career path change that might earn him more money. Yet, whilst Hamilton has always stated he wants to forge himself a prosperous life, he has also always said he drives to win. Therefore, a lot of people’s dismay in the move is that Hamilton leaves a team that are providing him with arguably the best car in F1 right now.

He may be setting his sights though on what lies ahead. In 2014, F1 will see a tidalwave of new design and technical regulations. One of the most important is the change in engines that will be powering the cars. The current 17,000rpm V8 engines being used in 2012, will be replaced by 14,000rpm V6 hybrids come 2014.

This is a big change. Mercedes GP are one of the few teams competing who also make their own engines. Before Mercedes returned to F1 in 2010 as an independent team, McLaren had previously been their main engine partner. But with Mercedes now concentrating on their own efforts, McLaren are now just your average engine customer, and so may not get all the know-how that could prove crucial in gaining success from the 2014 rules.

Technical Director, Ross Brawn (R) and Norbert Haug (L), Mercedes’ engine Chief, will be eyeing up the 2014 season keenly.

Factor in the leadership of technical guru Ross Brawn at the helm of Mercedes GP,  his impressive team of designers, and Brawn’s strong ability to adapt to new rules, and Hamilton has potential to form a dominant partnership with the team. Indeed, that Hamilton hasn’t won a world title since 2008 with McLaren, has certainly formed a great deal of growing frustration between him and his former employer.

There is a great deal of potential and logic in Hamilton choosing his Mercedes path for such reasons. However, it is all unproven theory until success is actually won, and so is nothing but a massive gamble for Hamilton’s career. Breaking away from the umbilical cord team that got him to where is will present him with new challenges, and could signal the making or breaking of his career.

Where does this leave McLaren? ‘For better or for worse’

Whichever way on looks, Lewis Hamilton will certainly leave a hole within the McLaren hierarchy. Whilst he came with emotional and PR baggage, his raw speed, flair, and ability to get the maximum out of under-performing cars was something rare in most drivers.

On the flip side, the very fact that a more harmonious team atmosphere could flourish without Hamilton around, could allow McLaren to focus more attention on racing matters. Hamilton’s replacement is 22-year-old Mexican rising star, Sergio Perez, who leaves the Sauber Team after 2 years with the outfit.

Sergio Perez had been strongly linked with a future Ferrari seat, as part of their ‘Young Driver’ scheme. A good steal by McLaren?

Perez has impressed in his F1 career thus far, particularly during 2012 – where he as secured 3 excellent podiums in a non-front-running car. His mixture of maturity and an ability to drive fast whilst looking after his tyres has won him much acclaim.

In Sergio Perez and Jenson Button, McLaren now have two drivers with similar, smooth driving styles – which could really benefit designing future cars that follow a single concept – rather than recent years of having to balance the needs of both Hamilton and Button.

If I were to foresee one weakness in McLaren’s new driver line-up, it would be that they seemingly lack a driver to give the team that ‘ultimate’ flying lap, to drive the wheels off the car at a given moment with risk and precision. But time will tell.

Where does confirmation of Lewis Hamilton’s 2013 future leave the rest of the drivers’ market?

Whether he had moved teams or not, the fate of Hamilton’s contract renewal was the crux point of the entire driver transfer market – as before this deal was announced, Red Bull Racing were the only top team to have confirmed a complete driver line-up for 2013.

To the neutral observer, Hamilton’s move has the potential to kick-start a flurry of driver movement, which F1 hasn’t seen the sorts of for a few years now.

The most prominent question in the short-term is where will 43-year-old, 7-times World Champion, Michael Schumacher – now cast aside from Mercedes – end up.

Will Schumacher be forced to ‘pull the plug’ on his career for good?

There are initial rumours that he is in talks with Sauber, to fill the seat now left vacant by Sergio Perez; or he could even attempt to partner Fernando Alonso for a year at his old Ferrari team – to replace the struggling Felipe Massa. But these options seem somewhat unlikely, as both teams have other potential drivers lined up who fit means and needs more appropriately – with Force India’s Nico Hulkenburg, in particular, linked with the move to Ferrari.

Thus, it seems more than possible – as some already feared back in 2010, when he announced his comeback to the sport – that the once-great Michael Schumacher may sadly finish his career for good having been kicked out, rather than at his own choosing. Love him or hate him, that would be an upsetting prospect for all in the sport.

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