New Challenge of Mercedes pulls Hamilton from McLaren’s arms – Mark Gallagher
By iSportconnect | September 28, 2012
Today’s announcement that Lewis Hamilton has signed a three year agreement to drive for Mercedes has shocked and surprised many, not least the McLaren team which had been engaged in earnest talks with XIX Management until Wednesday. In spite of weeks of intense speculation, confirmation that the 27-year-old British star will depart the team which has nurtured his career for 15 years still surprised many industry insiders.
Hamilton has driven for McLaren for five years, winning the 2008 World Drivers’ Championship, and has achieved 48 podiums from 103 race starts, winning 20 of them. He famously approached the McLaren team boss, Ron Dennis, as a precocious 10 year old kart racer and was signed to the McLaren driver development programme only three years later. Over the course of the next decade, he was trained in every facet of Formula One, to the extent that he was the best prepared driver in the history of the sport when he came to make his debut in 2007.
That relationship is now over, and there are likely to be three main reasons why Hamilton and his management opted not to renew the McLaren deal.
In my view the first reason will be personal. Hamilton has not been entirely happy for some time, evidenced by the moody behaviour which marked his 2011 season and has been seen again at times this year. Blamed on an on-off relationship with celebrity girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, there were times when the driver’s terse responses to media questions and general demeanor proved embarrassing to McLaren. There have been spats with the team, most recently over a series of poorly conceived tweets by Hamilton, including sending photographs of sensitive team data to his one million followers.
Secondly will be the promise of technical superiority by Mercedes in the coming seasons. In 2014, Formula One will usher in a new era of fully hybrid power train technologies and, as one of the three manufacturers, Mercedes Benz is ideally positioned to design and package the new engine, electric motor and energy recovery system to meet their team’s design requirements. McLaren is merely a Mercedes engine customer, even to the extent of having to pay for its engines next season.
Finally, there is the commercial offering which, if the rumours are true, represents not only a marginal increase in base remuneration, but some lucrative bonuses and greater flexibility in relation to personal endorsements.
Considering that the Mercedes team has only won one Grand Prix in three years, it looks like a considerable roll of the dice for Hamilton. However, Mercedes grew out of the World Championship winning Brawn GP team of 2009 and possesses world class facilities thanks to a decade long investment by previous owners British American Tobacco and Honda.
Hamilton’s move has led to McLaren opting for the talents of Mexico’s Sergio Perez who, at only 22 years of age, has achieved three strong podium finishes for the Sauber team this season, including 2nd places in Malaysia and Italy. Backed by Telmex, it will be interesting to see if Perez ultimately carries this sponsorship with him if Vodafone opts to downscale or discontinue its support for McLaren after 2013.
Also affected is Michael Schumacher, the 7 times World Champion who unexpectedly returned to the sport in 2010 with Mercedes. Three seasons later, his much hyped return has failed to match expectations, the car’s performance and reliability doing little to help a driver who has also made some uncharacteristic mistakes. It is not clear if Schumacher will now retire permanently, but it is difficult to see a credible future for the German ace.
All told, Hamilton’s move from McLaren to Mercedes is big news for Formula One and is set to give the World Championship a new look in 2013. More immediately, with six races of this year’s World Championship still to run, and McLaren the form team at the moment, it is conceivable that Hamilton might yet steal the Drivers’ title from runaway series leader Fernando Alonso.
McLaren has pledged its full commitment to both Hamilton and team mate Jenson Button, as one would expect, but it is their departing driver who stands the better chance of title success. That might yet become the big story of the year, therefore, if Hamilton can bring McLaren a World Championship title after what some will regard as his betrayal, after the team’s support for his career.
About Mark Gallagher
Mark Gallagher is Managing Director of the CMS Motor Sport consultancy, co-owner of the Status Grand Prix motor racing team which competes in both Le Mans sports car racing and the GP3 feeder-series to Formula One, and an F1 commentator on ESPN Star Sports in Asia.
He is also a professional conference speaker on the business lessons to be learned from Formula One, drawing on his experiences in senior management positions in the sport.