Yesterday was the day. It was the announcement that many Lewis Hamilton fans feared.
After six seasons at McLaren (and many more linked with the team before he started in Formula 1), it was confirmed that the 2008 champion would be moving to Mercedes on a three-year deal.
“But Mercedes have only won one race since they brought Brawn GP – Hamilton has won nine in that time. Why would it want to move there? He must be doing it purely for the money!”
That was the (paraphrased) reaction of quite a few people on Twitter when the news broke. However, this move to Mercedes could well be the best possible move Hamilton could have made at this stage in this career, and a very clever decision.
Of course, without getting inside Hamilton’s head, or at least sitting-in on some of the meetings he had with his management team, nobody can really know exactly how much of a factor money played in the whole move.
The freedom to pick and choose his own sponsorship deals and manage his own image rights was probably quite attractive to Hamilton, but one could argue that the reduction in PR days and regain of control was probably more attractive to him than the pure monetary reward.
On the track, it is undeniable that McLaren have been the better team since the start of 2010, which was when the Mercedes name returned to Formula 1. The win for Nico Rosberg in China earlier this year has been the one and only victory for the Silver Arrows, whereas McLaren have enjoyed 16 in that time.
Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future success though (as David Coulthard used to say with irritating regularity on the BBC a few seasons ago). When Honda became Brawn GP over the winter of 2008/2009, Ross Brawn had to implement a huge down-sizing operation, which meant hundreds of people were made redundant. The team won both the Constructors’ Championship and the Drivers’ Championship with Jenson Button, but work on the 2010 car suffered owing to this reduced workforce.
When Mercedes bought Brawn GP at the end of 2009, the team had to be brought back up to size. Since then, there have also been huge changes to the senior technical team. During 2011 former Renault man Bob Bell joined the team as Technical Director, and then later in the year former Red Bull technical director Geoff Willis was named Technology Director and Aldo Costa, who won eight world championships with Ferrari, joined as Engineering Director.
Together with Ross Brawn, who masterminded seven world championships for Michael Schumacher and one for Button, Mercedes have formidable technical expertise and people who know how to succeed in the sport. With the team steadily gelling together, Hamilton will hope to have joined just as the project is about to yield fruit – a fast car capable of winning the championship in either 2013 or 2014.
Speaking of 2014, much has been made of the radical new engine regulations that come into play (providing Bernie Ecclestone fails to get them changed). One school of thought is, that with Mercedes being only one of two teams that make their own engines, they will be well placed to capitalise. Admittedly it is hard to see the likes of Red Bull, or indeed McLaren, being that far behind, but every advantage, no matter how tiny, can make a big difference in this sport.
If the outraged Twitterati had considered the notion that Mercedes could come good in the coming years, the response of some on Twitter may have become slightly more refined:
“OK… Merc MIGHT make a car that can consistently win races. This is still a HUGE gamble for Hamilton. He is guaranteed a good car at McLaren.”
It is certainly true that Hamilton has won at least two races every year he has been at McLaren. Even in 2009, when the team were hampered by the lack of a double-diffuser, he still picked up wins in Hungary and Singapore.
And for three of the five full seasons he has had with McLaren, Hamilton has gone into the final race of the year with a chance of winning the championship.
Yet Hamilton has just one championship to his name so far, and his undoubted talent as a driver suggests that he should have won at least two by now.
Some would argue that “it is better to go through life regretting things you have done than to regret what you have not done and wondering what might have been”. Obviously there are many exceptions to this rule, but it probably applies in Hamilton’s case.
McLaren is really all Hamilton knows. He has grown-up with their way of doing things, their rules, and their people. How would he perform in another team where things are different? He does not know that, and it will be an exciting adventure for him finding out. He could relish the extra freedoms that Mercedes gives him; he could learn some new tricks from Ross Brawn or the other experienced engineers within that team; or it could just be that change is that something he needs to make the step to multiple F1 champion.
And what is the worst that could happen at Mercedes? Nico Rosberg, while quick in qualifying and a reliable racer, does not look, at the moment at least, to be a world beater. Once Hamilton finds his feet within the team, he should be comfortably beating Rosberg.
Therefore, even if, during the entirety of his three year contract with the team, Hamilton does not have a car capable of winning a championship, he will have further demonstrated his ability to out-perform a poor car, and will probably have dominated another team-mate. This will ensure that, should he want to move on at the end of 2015, by which time he will only be 30, he should be able to slide back into a top team, perhaps even return to McLaren.
The last couple of seasons have been mixed for Lewis Hamilton. There have been some highs, but also many disappointing weekends. There have been plenty of penalties, a few silly crashes (some that Felipe Massa and Pastor Maldonado not remember fondly), and of course tweeted telemetry. Seeing how Hamilton adjusts to a different environment, and the reset that this will provide, is going to be exciting for all F1 followers, whether they are fans of the Brit or not.
This move could reinvigorate Hamilton, his career, and even Formula 1 as a whole. It is arguably not just a good move for Hamilton, but an essential one.