Lewis Hamilton’s demeanour and that of his team after victory in the Italian Grand Prix bore all the hallmarks of a divorce that has already been agreed. Minimal celebrations on the pit wall and beneath the podium, a team photo for appearances’ sake with an implacable looking Hamilton and Ron Dennis declining to join in.
Despite appearances, team boss Martin Whitmarsh said after the race that suggestions that a deal was already done were “fantasy” and insisted that the door is still open if Hamilton wants to stay.
However driver contracts often get signed during race weekends and there were strong indications that the situation may have been closed out before everyone left Monza.
Hamilton looks like he is moving on, perhaps the only way he can become his own man, certainly the only way he and XIX Entertainment can fully cash in on his status, box office power and his image rights. And that is a big part of what this is about. Mercedes is one of the world’s most powerful brands, while McLaren makes F1 cars and small volume sports cars. This deal will take Hamilton’s name and image well beyond the boundaries of F1. If Hamilton did not want this, why would he had signed up with XIX?
Also McLaren drivers have to work within strict guidelines with team sponsors. Mercedes need Hamilton and this deal will give him greater freedom. The suggested deal with Mercedes and its sponsors is very big and so too will be the impact it will make on the competition in F1 over the next three years and the driver market in the nearer term.
Mercedes had to do this, as one of only two “works” teams in F1 they had to get a champion on board, especially with Michael Schumacher winding down towards retirement again. There is risk if they don’t go on to win, but it’s a risk worth taking.
Ron Dennis’ fellow McLaren shareholders were all in Monza this weekend, from Friday onwards; Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman and long time shareholder Mansour Ojjeh could be observed in discussions with Whitmarsh over the next steps in a painful negotiation with a driver whom the team has nurtured since childhood.
Eddie Jordan, apparently prompted by both XIX and Bernie Ecclestone, lobbed the grenade in on Wednesday, saying that Hamilton was on the point of signing for Mercedes. It was a final call to McLaren to improve the deal on offer or lose their man.
But some signs were there from McLaren’s side that there was not only a reluctance to meet the financial terms, but also a weariness with the whole pantomime of ‘Life with Lewis.’ The tweeting of the set up sheet in Spa was a symbolic watershed in a relationship which has veered off track since the wide eyed enthusiasm of 2007.
The biggest problem for McLaren is how to replace Hamilton without losing significant performance. He’s worth £25 million a year because he’s one of the fastest drivers in the world and whoever sits in the car next year is unlikely to be able to match that speed. Whitmarsh said yesterday that he does not have a Plan B.
Paul di Resta senses an opportunity, but will he be able to meet the numbers on the stopwatch that Hamilton does? And will McLaren want both their drivers to be managed by the same person? Di Resta confirmed his deal with Jenson Button’s manager Richard Goddard this weekend, replacing Lewis’ father Anthony, who is suing Di Resta for wrongful dismissal and loss of earnings.
F1 is an incestuous world, with such complex intertwined relationships but there is great goodwill between Goddard and Whitmarsh. Goddard looked very pleased all weekend in sharp contrast to the careworn faces of the McLaren management.
Kimi Raikkonen is the only driver who could get close to Hamilton’s performance – he is only a single point behind him in the championship – but he seems happy at Lotus and he wasn’t terribly happy last time he drove for McLaren. His qualifying pace has yet to be rediscovered but he’s racing very strongly. He would work well with Button and form a strong team, but he’s come back to F1 to enjoy himself and the sponsor commitments would be a huge sticking point. Button would refuse to do more than his fair share for Vodafone, Mobil and the rest to compensate.
Speaking of Vodafone, there have been suggestions that discussions are taking place for Sergio Perez to join the team; Vodafone has been looking for years into expanding its reach in Latin America and particularly Brazil via Perez’ backers Telmex and America Movil. So this could provide a strong business case for a move. However Perez is a Ferrari Academy driver so there are some hurdles there.
There have been suggestions of a trade with Mercedes on Nico Rosberg, with Michael Schumacher staying on to partner Hamilton. But one senses that Mercedes were waiting to see if they could get Hamilton signed before making their next move, and now may start gently leaning on the seven times champion to ease him into retirement.
Hamilton at Mercedes, if and when confirmed, is good news for Bernie Ecclestone, who keeps Mercedes involved and committed, despite some very rocky times between the two parties recently over Mercedes’ share of the sport’s revenues in comparison with Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren. It could be Mercedes’ turn to do some winning in F1.
Ecclestone has got what he wants, but is known to be suspicious of Simon Fuller and XIX Entertainment. Such a group having so much power and control over one of his biggest stars is a situation he will be monitoring carefully.
This looks like the final push for Mercedes – Ross Brawn knows what it takes to win and has followed the tried and tested formula: he has built up his technical team, they have their own engine facilities and a clear plan and now it looks like they have the driver.
All the pieces are in place and Mercedes must deliver the title in the next three years.
Fail with this group and there would be pressure from Daimler shareholders to call time on the F1 adventure.