Now that the dust has settled…

Lewis Hamilton
© James Moy Photography

Sitting here in the Suzuka media centre, with jet lag having kicked in, I find myself with some quiet time to reflect on the last few days and the big news that has taken up so many column inches.

The Lewis Hamilton story is, of course, the big story in the sport right now. I don’t think I’ve spoken to a single person in Formula 1 who believes it will play out well or bring Hamilton the levels of success he craves, but that’s not to say it won’t happen.

The simple fact of the matter though is that Hamilton had to move on. He had to get away from McLaren. Edd Straw wrote a wonderful piece on Autosport.com this week about how Hamilton’s move was akin to any youngster growing up and leaving home. It is a rite of passage, an essential and defining moment in any young person’s life. It’s the moment at which they learn to stand on their own feet.

Hamilton’s relationship with McLaren has been strained for some time. For over a year now we’ve asked what’s up with Lewis and questioned where his head has been at both on and off the track. Perhaps this move to Mercedes will finally bring him the peace he needs and allow him to flourish. Without the parental constraints of McLaren, perhaps Lewis will become the man he was always destined to be.

Perhaps.

The thing is, Mercedes was the only real option available to Hamilton. We now know it was Lewis who approached Mercedes, not the other way around. We know that Hamilton had discussions with Red Bull in Canada last year. So it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots. Unhappy at McLaren, he went to speak to Horner. Nothing doing at Red Bull so maybe he tried Ferrari. No luck there, so he went to speak to Mercedes… and hello, what’s this? A glimmer of interest? A possible route out of McLaren?

The wheels were certainly greased by Bernie and, via Bernie, Niki Lauda who we understand managed to convince Hamilton, when the Brit started to have doubts over the move, that it was in fact the right one by appealing to his emotions over his sensibilities. He was sold on the concept of taking the team and doing what the great Michael Schumacher could not. If Hamilton could turn Mercedes into a world championship winning outfit, his reputation and his standing would be immeasurable. He could do what Schumacher did at Ferrari. He could create something magical.

That was the pitch. And it worked.

Hamilton lives to win
© James Moy Photography

So Hamilton will be a Mercedes driver. For how long nobody knows. Give it three years and he’ll still only be 30. Easily of an age where a move to another big team could be on the cards.

But by that point will his stock have risen or fallen?

A move from McLaren to Mercedes for big bucks and the emotional draw of creating something unique sounds an awful lot like a line we, in the UK, were fed about another of our great sporting icons. We heard it when David Beckham left Real Madrid, the greatest soccer team at the time in the world, and moved to LA Galaxy.

Ever since then, Beckham has missed the competitive level of European soccer, taking loan spells at AC Milan, and flying back to the UK to train with Arsenal and Tottenham… just to keep his eye in.

But brand Beckham has soared. He is a global megastar. And, just like his XIX Management stablemate Hamilton, perhaps this is the bigger picture. Whatever. For the time being at least, the line remains that it is all about the emotion, and about creating something nobody else has been able to do. And good luck to him.

Sergio Perez
© James Moy Photography

The Perez story remains, for me, a far more interesting topic however.

I’m still not 100% convinced it’s the greatest move for McLaren. Sergio is a good driver. But is he great? Does he have the potential to be? It’s questionable. Excluding the obvious examples of your Alonsos and Vettels, there exists a short list of drivers who anyone in this paddock would place above Perez in the ultimate pantheon of overall ability and talent. It’s a list that is made up of drivers who would have been just as free to move to McLaren as was the Mexican.

I don’t believe for a moment that di Resta would have been a serious consideration for McLaren. Everyone keeps banging on about it, but as I have already said it makes no sense politically. Having both drivers managed by the same person would have handed a huge chunk of power away. There is no way, in my mind, that McLaren would have so brazenly opened themselves up to being taken hostage. Taking both drivers from the same stable makes no sense. Ironically, and on that basis, had di Resta still been managed by Anthony Hamilton he may have stood a better chance of the seat.

Hulkenberg remains the big loss for McLaren here. He would have been the perfect foil for Button and a potential future team leader for McLaren. Because, as many in this paddock are now asking themselves, do you really see Perez as a team leader? Very few do.

All of which leads us to one fairly eye-opening conclusion. McLaren maybe didn’t take the best driver available to them. With rumours of Vodafone jumping ship, have they taken a driver because of the personal sponsors he could encourage into the McLaren fold? I don’t for a moment think that Telmex has paid for the seat, but there’s every chance that the company, and Carlos Slim, could follow Perez and become a McLaren sponsor.

Also, think about the fact that McLaren is ramping up its road car division. Signing Perez is a smart move from a sales perspective, too.

So has McLaren signed Perez for the bigger picture? To sell cars and bring sponsors into the team? And if they have, isn’t that quite a sad reflection on where we’ve got, and where McLaren is? I mean, when was the last time commercial considerations played a bigger hand in the signing of a driver at McLaren than out and out talent? Philippe Alliot to keep Peugeot happy? You’d have to go back pretty far.

As with every big move, you could spend a lifetime pouring over the detail, asking yourself why. Ultimately only those who have made the decisions truly know the reasons behind them.

But you can bet that this sport’s pair of two-time champions have allowed themselves a wry smile over the last week.

The 2 big winners in all this?
© James Moy Photography

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29 thoughts on “Now that the dust has settled…

  1. We can only wait to see if Mercedes builds a car that Hamilton can pilot. Michael didn’t get a good car….I believe that car driven by anyone is a 5th place car in anyone’s hands.

    I am not sold on the Hamilton move……but 2013 we will see!

    I just want to add to create a side conversation…..do you think Michael will go back to Ferrari and then retire!!?? I am seeing this as a possibility.

  2. Hey Bux, common’ it’s only his second year in F1. Nobody knows if he’s got the talent or not, but one thing we all know is that the kid has got potential. I almost had a heart attack when I found out that he was going to replace Hamilton, I seriously thought it would be Di Resta the one to replace him. It would have been the smartest that´s for sure, but I am still trying to understand why MClaren chose to take a risk.

  3. Fail to understand how Di Resta and Hulk are safer options. It’s not like they set the world on fire by losing convincingly to Sutil and Barrichello in their maiden seasons…

  4. Will, I can’t fault your analysis and I think that ‘nando et al may be pretty happy. Mercedes need to find a quality designer like Rory Byrne or Adrian Newey. That may be the missing piece of the puzzle.

  5. I like the suggestion that Alonso and Vettel are the real winners here, but there is a third winner – Button.
    If McLaren deliver the best car next year (note the ‘if’), he no longer has the problem of having a faster driver in the other car. This has played out in a way that I am sure he, and no one else anticipated when he moved from Brawn… or as it is now known, Mercedes. Ironic.

  6. Will, thanks for the cogent information. I feel a trifle sorry for Sauber if they lose Sim’s funding, as well as a good driver. Your comment that the ‘insiders’ feel that Perez is not a leader is interesting. I’m not sure where I am on Mercedes ability to produce a winning car. Somehow, I think that Brawn, Bell, Willis etc. should (key word) be able to produce a winning car. On the other hand was Brawn’s success at Ferrari a function of a unique synergy that is not repeatable?

  7. Will,

    Great post.

    Thank you for pointing out some doubts about Perez – yes, he is quick, but I do wonder how much of it is the car as a factor here. He is an odd choice for McLaren, but I think the big winner in all of this is not Alonso or Vettel, but Button.

    Remember Button joined McLaren when it was very much Hamilton’s team – and we all doubted the reasons why he would do so after winning the championship with Brawn and Mercedes buying that team. Yet in the last 3 seasons he seems to have won over McLaren and he will be in a very strong position as the team leader from now on – I don’t think Perez will take away so many points from him as Hamilton has.

    It’s a remarkable turnaround from outsider to team leader!

  8. The more I think about the Mercedes move the more I actually think it will help Lewis’s stock. Just think Fernando in that Renault for two years. Lewis is a great driver and is going to put his car in places it has no right to be if it is not up to winning consistently. If he does this and shows Nico a clean pair of heals everyone will forget the reasons he went and rave about his talent again.

    As for Perez he will have to deal with a different sort of pressure in a top team. In a team like Sauber you can have a couple of fantastic races and you are a star and what you do between that is less important but at McLaren you cannot afford a weekend off. It will be interesting to see if he can deliver on a regular basis. We have seen previous Sauber graduates go both ways.

  9. ok, so a guy with 3 podiums and a fast lap driving a sauber isn’t a good choice for mclaren?? How many podiums do Di Resta or Hulkenberg have?? BTW I don’t believe that a lot of mexican fans can buy mclaren car.

  10. I had the same thoughts about Perez to be honest. He’s a good driver and I don’t begrudge him the seat, but I agree Hulkenberg would have been the better signing. Whitmarsh spoke about exciting commercial opportunities in the future, but of course denied they had anything to do with making a decision on Perez. I’m not so sure. It was interesting to read him say (on The Telegraph website) on di Resta that they’d exhausted all commercial opportunities of having an all British line-up over the last three years. So clearly commercial opportunities were a consideration.

    I have to also say McLaren don’t have a driver with brilliant one lap pace anymore. Hamilton has consistently out-qualified Button and Perez’s strength has been in the race, Kobayashi has often got the better of him in qualifying. Will be interesting to see what effect that has on McLaren’s performances next season.

    • Think the point above is valid, but it also might work in McLaren’s favour.

      Having two drivers who are easy on their tyres (I know it’s not always true but Lewis does usually work the tyres more) might mean they can go aggressive on the 2013 car and it’s setup. Can’t help but feel the last few years it’s been a compromise on what Lewis / Jenson needed from a car.

      Agree Jenson isn’t always hot at quali but with Sergio they have a driver they can mould, think q pace is a good place to start.

      Cheers

      Alex

  11. Will, interesting that this is now the second world champion that Button has deposed from ‘his team’. Happened to JV at BAR and now Hamilton. A little while back i had proposed the idea of Button being the silent assassin in comment to one of your columns, and it really seems to be true. Can he sustain his high level without having someone seen as superior in the other seat? Is being the true number one a good position for him?

  12. Pingback: Alonso says Hamilton is right to leave McLaren | F1 Fanatic round-up « Cars and Motoring

  13. As for Hamilton, go figure? There a far worse jobs in F1 than that of a McLaren driver. History has proven that, more often than not, a MM driver will get a competitive car capable of winning races & at the very least a shot at the WC. How many other teams can “guarantee” that? His decision is mind boggling & makes you wonder at the real reasoning behind it. I wish him luck, in fact he may redeem himself in my eyes. If he can put his head down & lift that team & their performance he will prove himself a real WC.

    If the car is non competitive & he falls back on blaming the team, sulking & throwing toys from the pram he will look like a wasted talent. I was always remember one thing about Schumacher, between 96 & 99 how many times did you hear him utter a word against Ferrari in the four seasons it took before he won the title?….Never. Lewis can’t make the same claim from his time at MM, even after being parachuted into a race winning car for his rookie season.

  14. Very interesting reflection.

    A number of issues that I would like discussed in addition to the above:

    When Button joined McLaren the focus was very much on putting in place a clear plan to integrate him; work on his qualifying (racing); and, image (sponsors).

    By contrast, McLaren radically changed the organisational structure (race engineer and physiotherapist) so that there appeared to show no preference towards Hamilton and Button could avail himself of the McLaren expertise.

    With this in mind, has there been any reporting and analysis on the ‘internal professional development’ they put into place for Hamilton throughout this same period? How did they manage the fact that those who were previously closest to him became at least a ‘reporting’ level further away?

    Yes, we we made fully aware that Whitmarsh didn’t want Lewis to change the way he drove and he wanted him to retain the ‘emotional’ characteristics that propel his driving and ability – but what were McLaren doing to develop him?

    Many a journalist / columnist / reporter / commentator has mentioned that he lacks particular skills that other more complete drivers have. Surely this suggests the ‘challenge’ Hamilton is seeking is the professional development not forthcoming and is this because he is both a ‘cash cow’ and a naturally fast driver but nothing more to Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.

    Maybe all the answers I crave were highlighted throughout Hamilton’s annus horribilis; and, I missed them.

  15. I think Sergio Perez and McLaren are the big winners here. Sergio will give Button a run for his money starting from the first race of the season, however, he also seems to be a very respectful guy, so he’s not going to step on Button’s toes and I think he’s going to help make McLaren a powerhouse again. Unless Lewis knows something about Mercedes that no one else knows, he’s soon going to find out that making a lot of money while having a losing season is not acceptable for a championship level driver.

  16. I never really saw Lewis as a guy who could develop a car, something that Mercedes I think needs. I suspect that Lewis will languish, even though he will be able to spread his ” wings ” according to Damon Hill. Allowed to be himself @ Merc might feel better, but winning races in 2013 I pose would feel even better.

    • I agree….I have also thought that Lewis has relied to heavily on knowing what the other driver set up would be in order to drive effectively…once he wasn’t privy to Alonso’s set up/development of the car, you could see a huge difference in how Lewis drove…this is not something he will be able to bring to Mercedes. I wonder how much he will rely on Nico for his development/set up in 2013…something to look for, for sure!

  17. This may be out of left field, but I think it’s an interesting idea:

    Sebastian Loeb has just announced semi-retirement from WRC, with just a partial season driving next year. He’s mentioned toying with WTCC, but maybe Ferrari’s upcoming need for a new pilot will dovetail nicely with giving Loeb something else to try for.

    If Kimi can go from F1 ace to being a fair WRC driver (and back), then surely the best ever WRC driver can have a go at F1.

    It always bugs me that there’s so few ways to compare the different forms of motor racing. Back in the old days, drivers would participate in many different types of events. I’d love to see more of that.

  18. What I think many tend to forget in criticizing Hamilton is that he is the equivalent of a child star. Michael Jacksonesque if you will. The psychology and the dependency upon others and constant need to excel and prove himself is the foundation of his current mind. Jenson and many other drivers who have both ends of the spectrum, winning and losing, are balanced in accepting failure, analyzing and moving on. They have had to accept that shit happens. All of a sudden you have an eco-save-the-world-livery all over your Honda as you share the last grid spots with your 60 year old brazilian team mate. Accepting and acknowledging what is you and by yourself judging what are reasonable expectations from that given situation is key in mental strength. Alonso began in a Minardi and he masters this. If the car is crap he accepts it and moves on. This is an issue that connects to Will’s post after SPA about drivers coming in too young. It is not with age racing maturity comes -> as seen with Hamilton. It is with experience of not always being at the top. Hulkenberg has that now. He is stronger. Rosberg has it. Vettel does not at the same extent and Hamilton is by far and away worst in class. Living a life without failures or people to teach you how to deal with failure creates a very fragile racing driver. Give Hamilton a couple of years of losing and manning up at Mercedes and he will be fit to wipe the floor with every driver out there. Including Alonso.

    • Great blog by Will Buxton (as always), and this specific response is a very accurate view of the subject in my opinion.

    • Completely agree with what you are saying. The Top 3 drivers on the grid are Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel. Among the 3 drivers, Hamilton is more mentally fragile. After 2011, many people feared for his career. But he pulled it together this season. I think if McLaren had been error-free, he could have been leading the WDC. But he has shown maturity and an ability to role with the punches this season.
      Alonso through his experiences, Spygate and Crashgate, has matured and become a tempered and balanced driver. Vettel is well-grounded and surrounded by good people. Hamilton sorely lacks that environment and support. His management company, his predilection to surround himself with entertainers (read rappers) worries serious F1 people.
      But he is undeniably a unique talent. When your career is under threat, it concentrates your mind. It would be interesting to see how this fast driver reacts to not getting into Q3 at every race next season. Can he suck it in and hold it together and drive the wheels of a not-so-good car? If he can and if he turns the Mercedes team around, GREATNESS awaits!!

  19. Excellent. I’d add to which Hamilton exploded onto the scene in 2007 and pretty much devastated the McLaren/Alonso championship bid. It was an audacious and turbulent introduction for a youngster that made him seem pretty much bullet proof. Of course the books show that he sealed the championship – in fairly fraught fashion – a year later. From there, along with the bling and the hamtourage, it’s been all downhill.

  20. Ok, Perez may not seem to be a top driver (yet), but those tree podiums these year were coming from the back of the field, charging whith fast lap, after fast lap… in my opinion that is perfect profile for a Mclaren driver, if you go a few years back you have Montoya, Raikkonen, and Lewis.. all of them had a sort of “Eye of the tiger” look in their eyes, something Sennaesque.. and currently in the F1 grid there are none of those kind of drivers anymore..

    All of them can do incredible races and put on a good show, and sometimes coming from the back to win races.

    Di Resta and Hulkenberg seem to be very fast, and inteligent.. i´m sure they wont make many mistakes, but they seem to be a little bit on the conservative style. and Perez isn´t. they may have to work a lot on him to iron all the talent, but that´s something mclaren allways has done with its drivers, and for me, this is the perfect match.. Jenson a very strong and proven driver, and the young latin kid with “The eye of the tiger” to win races.

    • I agree. Perez has certainly shown himself to be the most exciting young driver on the grid this year & it’ll be fascinating to see what he can achieve in a really good car with McLaren (& if we believe Hamilton, the 2013 development is looking very strong). His weakness so far has been quali, but Whitmarsh seems to think they can coach him to improve on this.
      Certainly Perez has huge potential. I’d be more concerned seeing how he copes with the pressure & extra demands of being in one of the top teams & whether that pressure translates into more banzai overtaking moves that land in the dirt, or thrilling victories. Either way it should be fun to watch.

      (Also, I plan to use the word ‘Sennaesque’ in conversation, somehow…)

  21. I think Hamilton is thinking about 2014, not so much 2013. 2013 is the year he builds the team around him and prepares the 2014 car. The 2014 season will bring completely new engines and he expects Merc will have the upper hand in this new engine war. Just my 2 cents.

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