A WEEK before the Formula One season starts in Australia, one question is dominating paddock chat. Is Lewis Hamilton’s move from habitual title chasers McLaren to also-rans Mercedes inspired ahead-of-the-curve prescience or cash-fuelled folly?
That Hamilton’s move is bold is undisputable, whether it is wise is another issue altogether.
The most positive scenario for Stevenage’s most famous son is that he emulates Michael Schumacher, who in 1996 moved from Benetton, where he had just won back-to-back titles, to join Ferrari, who had not won a drivers’ title since 1979, in a two-year deal worth $60m. Despite initial reliability issues, the German oversaw a complete rejuvenation of the team which allowed him to go on and win five consecutive world titles from 2000 to 2004.
The flipside of that coin is a feisty little French-Canadian called Jacques Villeneuve, who won the world championship in 1997 with Williams and then a year later, to the consternation of the entire industry, switched to a new team co-owned and run by his agent, Scotsman Craig Pollock. It was a disaster of epic proportions. Villeneuve’s BAR failed to finish its first 11 races and, in five years, he managed just two podiums. Even worse, he was outscored by a succession of team-mates, including rookie Jenson Button, and was eventually replaced by Takuma Sato.
The initial consensus was that Hamilton had followed the money to the detriment of his career, and that Villeneuve’s nosedive rather than Schumacher’s dramatic upwards trajectory beckoned. It didn’t help that Mercedes was conceived out of the ashes of the former BAR team, and the stats certainly look pretty daunting. Last season Nico Rosberg’s pole position in China was Mercedes’ first since Juan Fangio in 1955 and, while Mercedes were the best of the mid-range teams, they scored fewer than half as many points as fourth-placed Lotus and not even a third as many as championship winners Red Bull. The paddock’s faith in legendary team boss Ross Brawn – the power behind Schumacher’s career, and the man whose eponymous team won the constructors’ and drivers’ championship in its only year of existence in 2009 – to turn around Mercedes’ fortunes had begun to fade after finishing fourth in 2010 and 2011, only to be shunted out to fifth by Lotus last year.
Things can change quickly in Formula One, however, and this week the performance of the new Mercedes W04 during testing at Barcelona provided plenty of pause for thought in the paddock. Far from being also-rans, Mercedes were blisteringly and unexpectedly quick, with Hamilton beating the track record by a full second. The top teams often keep their powder dry, but that sort of speed makes Mercedes a contender, although the team’s Achille’s heel has always been reliability, not straight-line grunt.
As if to make the point, Hamilton’s first day of testing was ruined when his brakes failed and he slammed into a tyre wall.
Hamilton himself is certainly beginning to talk a good game. Having initially been stoically downbeat about his prospects, saying only that he hoped to be competitive in 2013 until a comprehensive overhaul of the regulations creates a new dynamic in 2014, the 28-year-old has become more upbeat. His assessment from a month ago that “I don’t think that we’re going to win races right from the start” has changed to “we will definitely win a race at some point”. Even talk of a title challenge is not completely discounted, with Hamilton saying: “It’s not ‘no chance’ and it’s not ‘we definitely will’ either.”
None of which surprises his rival and former McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard long ago hailed Hamilton’s decision to leave the Woking team for new pastures as a move which would reinvigorate a career that was in danger of going stale.
“Who is the strongest opponent, the strongest driver on the grid? Who is the one you have to keep an eye on? It is Hamilton – and it will still be Hamilton next year,” the Spaniard said back in January, long before the W04 had been unveiled.
“I am sure he will be able to win. He is a super good driver because he won every year with any car.
“He won in 2007 and 2008. In 2009 they started around two seconds off the pace with McLaren and Hamilton was able to win races. It was the same in 2010.”
Although money undoubtedly played a part in Hamilton’s decision to depart (his recent acquisition of a private plane certainly points to a new affluence), it was never his only reason for leaving. With his desire to establish his own “brand” thwarted by McLaren’s Ron Dennis and an ambition to be acknowledged as No.1 driver, Mercedes not only offered inducements that McLaren could not, but some that they would not. The result is a driver who seems palpably happier. No longer is he like a surly teenager with a grievance.
“I don’t feel any expectation, if anything I feel like I’ve got a free ticket,” he said. “The pressure is all on the other guys with great cars to compete and perform. I’m just happy I’ve got a new challenge, happy it’s a fresh chapter in my life.”
Hamilton also has a keen eye on F1 history. He has spoken of how honoured he is to be following in Michael Schumacher’s shoes, and it appears that he is following in more ways than are immediately apparent.
Schumacher only succeeded at Ferrari after the Italian team recruited a new top management team which included technical gurus Brawn and Rory Byrne from the German’s old team, Benetton.
Hamilton’s arrival at Mercedes has coincided with a similar changing of the backroom guard, with Niki Lauda coming in as overall supervisor, while fellow Austrian Toto Wolff arrives from Williams to take over from Norbert Haug. Even more significantly, although it has yet to be confirmed, it appears that Paddy Lowe will arrive from McLaren to take over from team principal Brawn. This is a team that is clearly aiming big and has Mercedes’ massive financial muscle to back up its ambition.
For now, though, Mercedes will be hoping that their new driver can continue a run of form at Albert Park that has seen him finish on the podium in five of his six races in Melbourne (in the other he finished third after starting 18th before being disqualified for a technical offence).
Whether or not he does, all eyes will be on just one man.