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Might McLaren hang on to Hamilton?

Once again, the tales of "Lewis" are taking the headlines everywhere, and the level of gossip and speculation is becoming a burden, ever for journalists.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

September 18th, 2012 (F1plus / Rob Myers).- Over the past couple of weeks the speculation surrounding Lewis Hamilton, and in particular which team the McLaren driver would be driving for in 2013, has reached fever pitch. The speculation has been fuelled by a story on the BBC website, citing unnamed sources that have been whispering in the ear of analyst, and former Formula 1 team owner, Eddie Jordan. More recently, we’ve seen an article from former ITV F1 commentator, James Allen, which ramped up the speculation to yet another level.

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Both Jordan and Allen have claimed that Hamilton will leave McLaren for Mercedes, citing a number of factors that support that position. They may well be right; both are considerably better placed than I am to comment on possible driver moves as people who are on site, at grand prix, speaking to teams, drivers and managers. However, I believe that there’s an equally strong case for Hamilton remaining with McLaren, and this is what I’m going to set out in this article. I want to be very clear upfront that this is just my point of view. I have no inside information. I may well be wrong.

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Hamilton’s potential move to Mercedes is predicated on the assumption that the Silver Arrows’ seven time world champion Michael Schumacher is going to retire for a second, and presumably final, time when his current contract expires at the end of the season. Schumacher, though, is probably in his best form since he returned to Formula 1 in 2010. Schumacher has been outpaced and outperformed by his team-mate, compatriot Nico Rosberg, consistently throughout 2010 and 2011. It looked, after the first seven rounds of 2012, that this trend would continue as Schumacher scored just two points and had five retirements. The European grand prix at Valencia signalled a massive turnaround of fortunes for Schumacher, though. He finished third, his first podium finish in his second F1 career and, since then has scored points in every round other than at the Hungarian grand prix, where he retired with technical problems. Since Valencia, Schumacher has outscored Rosberg by 25 points – with 41 points compared to his younger team-mate’s 16.

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Hamilton and McLaren celebrates victory at Hungary.

This being the case, Schumacher may well decide that he wants to carry on racing for a while yet. Bernie Ecclestone – F1’s ringmaster – suggested otherwise to the BBC, in an interview ahead of the recent Italian grand prix, though, but who knows what Ecclestone knows and what he doesn’t know? It certainly would not be beyond the realms of the possible for Ecclestone to be stirring the pot for his own ends.

It’s easy to forget amid the maelstrom of speculation that Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn has stated quite clearly that Schumacher is his first choice, and that any talk of replacements is premature until the German decides that he wants to retire, if, indeed, that is what he wants to do. Brawn said, just before the British grand prix, “We are focused on Michael for as long as it takes – and for whatever it takes”. Would Hamilton really want to move to a team where he knows going in that he is not the first choice?

It is, though, undoubtedly true that Mercedes as one of only two true ‘works’ teams in F1 would fit well with Hamilton from a marketing and branding perspective. It has been said, by Eddie Jordan, that Hamilton’s management team, XIX Entertainment, are trying to position the Briton as a “major global star” and that “Mercedes is a much bigger global brand than McLaren”. That may well be true, but Hamilton must surely already be considered a “major global star”. He is, after all, the 2008 world drivers’ champion, the driver that went head to head with and beat Fernando Alonso at McLaren in his rookie year and came out on top. He also dates a pop star in former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and has a number of “showbiz” friends.

Let’s not forget, either, that Ayrton Senna, Hamilton’s hero, drove for and won three world championships for McLaren. Senna was without doubt a major global star, without driving for a big brand team. Isn’t the best way for Hamilton to increase his exposure to win more world championships? For that, of course, he needs competitive machinery.

Hamilton’s desire and will to win has often been ignored or dismissed as an insignificant factor as speculation about a move to Mercedes has mounted, but I believe that this is a crucial factor that should not be made light of. It is no secret that the 2008 world drivers’ champion is not satisfied with a single championship and wants to win multiple titles. This being the case, you need to ask yourself the question “which team is likely to give him the best chance of doing so?”. If McLaren and Mercedes are the two available options, the answer to that question, based on past performance and, indeed, performance this season, is clearly McLaren.

McLaren have, at this stage of the season, what appears to be the fastest car. They have won five races this season, more than any other team, and have a rich heritage of race wins and drivers and constructors world championships. The current incarnation of the Mercedes F1 team, in contrast, was born from the Brawn team that steered Jenson Button to the world drivers’ championship in 2009. Since that season, though, the team has won just once with Nico Rosberg’s maiden victory in Formula 1 at this year’s Chinese grand prix. At this stage of the season, there’s nothing to suggest that there will be a huge improvement in fortunes for the German manufacturer unless they can deliver a huge upturn in performance with their new triple DRS system and coanda exhaust – both of which were on the car at last week’s young driver test in Magny Cours.

Much has been made of Hamilton’s management team, XIX Entertainment, speaking to Mercedes and other teams about the possibility of a seat for the Englishman in 2013. I simply can’t understand why this is a big issue, though. It would be hugely remiss of XIX not to be speaking to other teams given that Hamilton is out of contract at the end of the season. Even if Hamilton has no intention of leaving McLaren, he cannot be 100% certain about the team’s intentions and putting all his eggs in one basket would be, at best, an extremely risky thing to do.

Talking to other teams can also be a negotiating tactic. It’s no secret that Hamilton wants to be paid as well as possible – who wouldn’t want that – and wants greater control over his image rights to help maximise his earnings. There may well be an offer on the table from Mercedes, and they may well be offering more money and more control over image rights than McLaren, but who’s to say that XIX aren’t just using this to drive up the offer on the table from McLaren? XIX could, as you would expect them to do, simply be trying to ensure that their client gets the best possible deal. One of the tactics to ensure that this happens would surely be speaking to other teams to ascertain what might be on offer elsewhere. Certainly that’s what Christian Horner, the team principal at Red Bull Racing has suggested recently. Horner was quoted as saying “The Hamilton story is about his position at McLaren – about how he can market himself to the world and what rights he gets. But if he listens to his racing heart, he will stay at McLaren, where he has the best chance to be world champion again”.

The telemetry data tweeted at the 2012 Belgian GP

Some say, though, that it goes beyond money, image rights and even the relative competitiveness of McLaren and Mercedes, arguing that relationships between Hamilton and McLaren have become strained and may have irrevocably broken down. A massive amount has been made of this, and Hamilton’s demeanour at the last two grand prix, fuelled by Hamilton’s misguided act of posting some potentially sensitive telemetry data on Twitter during the Belgian grand prix weekend. It is certainly true that Hamilton has been downbeat at the last two races, despite his excellent victory at the last race in Italy. There are, however, other factors that might explain this, for example the death of his aunt leading up to the Belgian grand prix. Hamilton is famously very close to his family and the death of a close relative might well have had a big impact on his mood. Certainly, Hamilton would not be the first person to be affected by the death of a loved one. It’s impossible to know for sure.

Whatever the true situation, McLaren have quite clearly stated that they remain in negotiations with Hamilton over a new contract. This has been backed up by XIX Entertainment, who have confirmed that they remain in “advanced discussions with McLaren about a new deal” for Hamilton.

With the lack of facts and verifiable information the speculation surrounding Hamilton should be regarded as just that. As I’ve shown here, it’s just as possible to spin the available information to support the argument that Hamilton will stay at McLaren as it is to spin it to make the case that the Stevenage born racer will move to Mercedes. This is silly season, don’t forget. It’s called that for a reason.

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