In the biggest driver move since since Alonso signed for Ferrari in 2010, Lewis Hamilton has finally jumped ship and signed for Mercedes. Some call him crazy for leaving the winning team which nurtured him since childhood, even more so because the Mclaren currently has the quickest car in the field and has in fact been so for the majority of this season. However despite having the overall fastest car, Hamilton finds himself 52 points down on Fernando Alonso.
While much could be said of Lewis’ lackluster 2011 season, he has been driving brilliantly all year, and but for a lapse of judgment in Valencia (he should have known by now that Pastor is a dangerous idiot and just let him go) he has been blisteringly fast and without mistakes on track. For the mistakes Hamilton has not made, the team have paid him back in full during this 2012 season. While Mclaren may now be boasting a remarkable pitstop record of 2.5 seconds, over the first 8 races they let both their drivers down massively on multiple occasions. Combined with some weak and baffling pitwall moves (Barcelona qualifying being the prime example), we should perhaps not be so surprised Hamilton chose to jump ship after all.
Hamilton won’t just remember the Monza win, he’ll also still be remembering those head shaking moments in the cockpit vividly, when yet another wheelnut escaped his crew or the incredulity when he hears the news he’s got a perfect pole position snatched away from him due to the team’s inefficiencies. The F1 press and fans alike are often only looking at the previous race to see how ‘well’ somebody is doing, hell it is allowing people like Massa to claim some sort of credibility, as if 1 decent performance magically erases huge mistakes of the past. While Mclaren have clearly had the best car over the past 4 or five races, they have not capitalized on it, with mechanical failures (and a silly franco-swiss) taking out Hamilton and Button, meaning the team struggles to outscore Red Bull in their fight for the WCC.
Would Lewis have started looking elsewhere if the team had not let him down so massively in the first half of the championship, which by all accounts he should have been leading had it not been for failures through no fault of his own? Would Lewis have even considered the move to Mercedes if the team had not let him down so badly this year, and in a way, the two years before that?
I’m not too much into the ‘boy becoming a man’ story now circulating the web. Sure, it’s tempting to look elsewhere, and the Mclaren way of doing things surely does get suffocating at times, but Lewis is a purebread racer and if he was truly convinced Mclaren would offer him the best chance to add to his title tally he would have stayed with them. He may make an idiot out of himself at times with the bling lifestyle, but I will never believe that when in Formula 1, he would choose money or bling over getting championships. He is there to win, period.
That a guy of his caliber loses faith like that is a sign of serious worry for the team. Mclaren have built Hamilton race winners in every season he has competed in, not a mean feat I will admit, however it has delivered him only one title, and that is already 4 years ago now. Mclaren haven’t won a constructers title since ’98 (although, granted, the ’07 one should be considered theirs). They are race winners, but the championships prove very elusive for them…and it’s championships Hamilton is after, not ‘mere’ race wins. While I rate Perez highly, few would disagree when I say that Mclaren’s line-up for 2013 is weaker than what they have now.
Since 2008, Mclaren have been outdone by first Brawn (and pretty much the rest of the field early on in that season), then the might of Newey’s bulls for 2 more years. This year, when finally Woking managed to build their drivers the class of the field from the bat in Melbourne, the team squandered away their driver’s chances. In that context, would you re-sign with Mclaren? Lewis is carrying the burden of three season’s worth of disappointments and perhaps this is what pushed him to Brawn, not the romantic boy coming of age story (which anyway, with Lewis at 27, would be a tad late for that now wouldn’t it).
This is not saying going to Mercedes wasn’t a gamble by Lewis, of course it is. While Mclaren’s recent record is not as rosy as they sometimes like to present it, compared to them Mercedes’ has been wholly subpar. One race victory since joining as a constructer in 2010 is simply not good enough for a team with their technical staff and resources. However Ross Brawn has been chipping away at it to make sure everything is in place for another glory run. Let’s take a look at the history there: in 1991 Brawn joined as technical director at Benetton, three years later, the team won the title with Michael Schumacher (granted, through a fair amount of cheating and underhand tactics, but still). Moving to Ferrari in 1996, four years later he started an unprecedented run of success with the Scuderia and Michael Schumacher, the guy who he has now dropped in favor of Lewis Hamilton. The more nostalgic among us could very well see a story coming full circle here.
Brawn, having taken 3 years to build up the Mercedes team into a contender, takes one of the most talented drivers on the grid – and also the most controversial – to another run of title successes. Looking at it this way, Lewis’ move starts to look more rational all of a sudden. See it however you want, but Mercedes DID win a race this year – and arguably could have won 2 of them had Michael not run into the back of Senna in Barcelona robbing him of his Monaco pole, so the team has some winning pedigree. While the car may not have been there all season long, the innovative double DRS did show some innovation prowess from the team Brawn has now carefully selected to drive the team forward. Combine that with the engineering and financial might of commercial giant Mercedes and there is no reason why this team would not be able to build the best f1 car around….perhaps in its fourth year as a constructor?
Lots of commentators seem to view this as a move with an eye on 2014 and tend to dismiss 2013 as a building year but Lewis may not even have to wait for 2014 to start winning races – and why not championships – with Mercedes.This time last year, who would have expected the Sauber and Williams to be contenders for victories? I would not put it beyond Mercedes to build a winner at any given time. While Brawn will be the first one to admit the team has not done what was expected of them in 2012, there is no reason to think he could not hit that sweet spot next year already. However it is true that the sweeping regulation changes heavily centered on bringing in a new engine formula should indeed benefit manufacturer teams over clients like Mclaren.
Next year will be Mclaren’s first year as a simple customer team and while Mercedes is committed to bring equal equipment to their customers, the added gizmos for 2014 in the energy recovery systems could prove a crucial area of development Mercedes may decide to keep for itself, or only bring older spec to the customers. While the current V8s have been frozen for years, 2014 and beyond will see a renewed focus on engines as a performance differentiator, and when that happens you’ll always be in a better position to be backed directly by the manufacturer like Mercedes and Ferrari. Last time McLaren lost their long standing engine supplier it heralded a period of severe draught for the team as Honda pulled out in the early nineties. A blow from which the team never really did recover until…Mercedes came along.
In the light of all this, Lewis could very well have pulled off a masterstroke, and much like the legend he now replaces, build his legacy together with one of the marquee teams of Formula 1.