[Updated] Lewis Hamilton has cut his 14-year umbilical cord to McLaren and announced he will join Mercedes at the end of the season on a three-year deal.
In a huge coup for Mercedes and major shot in the arm for its ambitions of winning consistently in Formula 1 that was predicted by JA on F1 earlier this month, the 2008 world champion will replace Michael Schumacher in the team’s 2013 line-up, reuniting him with his old karting team-mate Nico Rosberg. Sauber’s Sergio Perez will replace Hamilton at McLaren.
Intriguingly, however, there was no mention in the Mercedes press release of what Schumacher will do now, despite an expectation that Hamilton’s arrival would prompt the 43-year-old into permanent retirement.
What there was confirmation of however – and which clearly paved the way for the Hamilton deal – is that Mercedes have committed to F1 and signed the new eight-year Concorde Agreement. Niki Lauda, who is said to have played a key role in convincing Hamilton of the Mercedes ‘project’, has also joined the team’s board of directors as non-executive chairman.
An hour or so earlier McLaren, having to face up to life without the driver they have nurtured since the age of 13 and took all the way to world champion, were the first to confirm news of Hamilton’s departure and duly announced that in his place will come Mexican youngster Perez to partner Jenson Button next season, the team crediting the 22-year-old’s “string of giantkilling performances” for the decision to sign him on a “multi-year deal” from Sauber.
But while Martin Whitmarsh expressed confidence in McLaren’s statement that Perez is “perfectly poised to develop into a world championship challenger”, the stark reality hitting home for the team and its shareholders this morning is that they have just lost a driver who’s a proven champion and 20 time race winner.
“It’s entirely appropriate that I should take this opportunity to pass on our thanks to Lewis Hamilton. He wrote a huge chapter of his life and career with us, and was, and always will be, a fine member of an exclusive club: the McLaren world champions’ club,” Whitmarsh said in McLaren’s statment.
“It goes without saying that we all wish him well for the future, just as it also goes without saying that we hope and believe that Sergio, too, will become a member of that exclusive club before too long.”
It is Mercedes therefore who will certainly feel they have got the better end of the deal, having signed one of the top three stars on the grid and biggest names in world sport. Speaking in the press release issued by this new team, Hamilton admitted it was time for a new challenge and that, cruically, he believes he can win more world championships with his new employer.
“It is now time for me to take on a fresh challenge and I am very excited to begin a new chapter racing for the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team. Mercedes-Benz has such an incredible heritage in motorsport, along with a passion for winning which I share,” Hamilton said.
“Together, we can grow and rise to this new challenge. I believe that I can help steer the Silver Arrows to the top and achieve our joint ambitions of winning the world championships.”
Team chief Ross Brawn, who has overseen a major restructing at Mercedes to get them in position to win races on a consistent basis over the coming years, is likely to see the arrival of a world champion in his prime as the final piece in a similar jigsaw to which he was first part of at Ferrari with a then much younger Schumacher in the late 1990s.
“The arrival of a driver of Lewis’ calibre is a testament to the standing of Mercedes-Benz in Formula One and I am proud that Lewis shares our vision and ambition for the success of the Silver Arrows,” Brawn said. “I believe that the combination of Lewis and Nico will be the most dynamic and exciting pairing on the grid next year, and I am looking forward to what we can achieve together.
“Over the past three years, we have been putting in place the foundations and building blocks that are needed to compete regularly for the world championship. Behind the scenes, we have assembled a team that is technically stronger, more experienced and better resourced. The potential is now there to match any other team on the grid, which is the minimum standard for a Mercedes-Benz works team. Our task is now to translate that potential into on-track performance for next season and beyond.”
As reported by this website, Hamilton’s decision to end his association with McLaren and jump ship to Mercedes had already appeared made at Monza given the demeanour of both him and the team in their post-race victory celebrations, despite Martin Whitmarsh’s claim that suggestions that a deal between the two parties was already signed as “fantasy”.
Although media reports suggested in the week that McLaren had upped their basic offer to Hamilton to try and get him to stay, the 27-year-old is set to earn more than what was offer at Woking with his earning potential increased by Mercedes giving him more freedom to strike his own personal sponsorship deals and maximise his image rights, a major factor behind his decision to hire XIX Entertainment as his management last year in the first place.
Speaking to reporters this afternoon, however, Whitmarsh has said that McLaren’s offer to Hamilton would have made him the highest paid driver in F1.
“We have made a financial offer which is better than anyone in Formula 1, other than himself, receives today, and that is something that I am comfortable with,” he said. “I know we made a very, very big financial offer, bigger than I believe any Formula 1 driver is enjoying today.”
Nonetheless it is believed that with a deal to bring Hamilton to Mercedes was already in place by the end of the Italian GP, Brawn and the Mercedes F1 hierarchy were waiting for the sign-off on their F1 future from the main Mercedes board in Stuttgart before going ahead, which duly arrived on Wednesday.
Indeed 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, confident they will be in a position to take advantage when the new engine regulations come into place in 2014, know they now have to start delivering over the next few seasons.
That will now be without Germany’s star sportsman Schumacher, his departure a relative footnote in Hamilton’s arrival in contrast to the fanfare that greeted his shock decision to come out of retirement in the winter of 2009 to spearhead what he and the team had expected to be a push for the title by now.
“I have had three nice years with the team which unfortunately did not go as well as we all would have wanted on the sporting side,” Schumacher said today. “I wish Lewis well and for the team to achieve the success we worked so hard for in the build-up. I would like to thank the team for their trust and all the guys for their unconditional commitment. I will now concentrate on the next races.“