It was during the week after the Singapore Grand Prix that Lewis Hamilton telephoned Martin Whitmarsh to inform him of his decision, finally, to leave McLaren for Mercedes at the end of the year.
And while we all know that nothing stands still in Formula 1, that teams’ fortunes and competitiveness to some degree fluctuate from one season to another, it surely will not have escaped Lewis’s attention that, in the three races run since he made up his mind, Mercedes have scored not a point.
Niki Lauda, now on board at Mercedes, is widely credited with having convinced Hamilton he should make the move, and doubtless – whatever is said to the contrary – Lewis’s management, XIX Entertainment, will have been grateful to Niki, for the commercial possibilities on offer are rather greater at Mercedes than at McLaren, where personal sponsorships are discouraged. Bottom line: there’s more money to be made on the side at Mercedes.
That said, I really don’t believe Hamilton is making the move for purely financial reasons. Of course drivers always talk of relishing ‘a new challenge’, but it’s a fact that, psychologically, moving to a new team can have a beneficial effect in itself. On the other hand, Lewis – for all his showbiz lifestyle and tastes – remains an intensely competitive racing driver, and while there will inevitably be a Stuttgart honeymoon period, he won’t cope well with life in midfield, a place become quite familiar to Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher.
Hamilton has said he doesn’t expect to win any Grands Prix with Mercedes in 2013, but that is surely a ‘pre-emptive’ remark rather than something he genuinely believes. Let’s remember that Nico Rosberg didn’t just win the Chinese Grand Prix back in April – he dominated it, and from a very comfortable pole position. Yes, I know we’re talking about only one race here, and at a time when everyone was floundering with the new Pirellis, but if there has been nothing approaching a repeat performance since, all the engineering expertise assembled by Mercedes must, one thinks, sooner or later prevail. Mustn’t it?
McLaren, on the other hand, may not have won a Constructors’ Championship since 1998 – extraordinary, I always think – but the team is always in the mix at the serious end of the grid, as Lewis knows from 20 Grand Prix victories in six years. Nine of those, though, came in his first two seasons (in which he placed second and first in the World Championship), and undoubtedly he will have expected more from the team in recent years, just as McLaren – it must be said – expected more from him. Perhaps in the end the McLaren/Hamilton marriage had simply run its course.
All in all, I was surprised by McLaren’s decision to go with Sergio Pérez, for while he has undoubtedly excelled occasionally – Sepang, Montreal, Monza – so also there have been weekends when his presence in a race has gone unnoticed, and over time I have been more impressed by the potential of Paul di Resta and, particularly, Nico Hulkenberg.
It is widely expected that Hulkenberg – very well-liked in the Force India team – will shortly be confirmed as a Sauber driver for 2013, perhaps preparatory to a move to Ferrari the year after. I have for quite a while sensed in Nico a young driver who is going to be important in F1 through the coming years, and perhaps it owes much to that wildly unpredictable qualifying day at Interlagos in 2010, when he put his Williams-Cosworth on pole. Very well, the uncertain weather worked in his favour, but he was out at the right time and positively seized the opportunity, setting a time good enough for pole then immediately running an even faster lap. Hulkenberg, it seems to me, has the right stuff.
Pérez too, on occasion – but he comes across a little like Nelson Piquet Jr, casually giving the impression that his F1 career was pre-ordained: a couple of years with a middle-order team, then promotion to the big league – which was long expected to be Ferrari. Although not from a wealthy background, Sergio – the first significant driver to come out of Mexico since Pedro Rodríguez – enjoys the patronage of Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and in an uncertain world that’s a comforting note to have on your CV. I don’t suggest that it will have played a significant role in the decision to sign Pérez – McLaren is first and foremost a serious team – but equally I doubt it will have worked against him.
In 2013 two of the top three teams – Red Bull and Ferrari – are unchanged, following Ferrari’s failure to persuade Mark Webber to partner Fernando Alonso. As it is, Felipe Massa’s eleventh hour return to some sort of form keeps him at Maranello for an eighth season, but had it not materialised the widespread belief was that Hulkenberg would have been a Ferrari driver next year.
When Massa’s future with the team looked all but over, Pérez was widely touted as his likely replacement, but Luca di Montezemolo was quick to stamp on that, saying that Sergio was not ready to be a Ferrari driver. It is a fact that traditionally they like experienced drivers at Maranello, and – Gilles Villeneuve apart – have tended to avoid raw rookies. Similarly, although a numero uno is never officially nominated, there has long been a policy of having a firm team leader, with a supporting driver – albeit one capable of winning races in his own right – in the other car. Think John Surtees and Lorenzo Bandini.
Through his career Alonso has never coped well on those rare occasions when he has been outpaced by his team mate. Schumacher, in his pomp, was exactly the same. I well remember Barrichello telling me about Michael’s mood if Rubens should be quicker even in a routine practice session: “How can someone as good as him be that insecure?”
When I mentioned it to Martin Brundle, though, his response was entirely different: “That’s exactly why guys like Michael respond that way – they can’t stand being beaten even momentarily! The really great drivers are always like that…” Ayrton Senna was another such, as Gerhard Berger can attest: “I didn’t beat Ayrton very often, but when I did…Jesus!”
Some teams, notably McLaren, like to sign the two very best drivers available, and leave them to get on with it. This can produce fantastic results – think of the Senna/Prost era – and can also bring forth anarchy – think of the Senna/Prost era.
Frank Williams has always ideally preferred a firm number one with a superior journeyman in the other car: “We had Jones and Regazzoni, and that worked perfectly,” he said. “Then we had Jones and Reutemann – and that didn’t! Put two bulls in one field, and you’re going to have trouble…”
Di Montezemolo said something similar recently in response to suggestions that Sebastian Vettel will go to Ferrari in 2014. Although rumours persist that an agreement is in place, for the life of me I cannot understand why Vettel – or any other driver – would voluntarily walk away from Adrian Newey or for that matter, why Ferrari would risk rocking Alonso’s boat.
Fernando is one of those – like Prost, Senna, Schumacher, before him – who has the ability, the work ethic, and the weight of personality to mould a team around him, and it is in this circumstance that a superstar gives of his very best. How much focus was there on other Lotus drivers during the years of Jim Clark? Not much at all, as Graham Hill could tell you.
In the end, of course, any team’s number one driver tacitly assumes that role, official or not, by simply being quicker than the guy in the other car. Gilles was one such. I don’t suggest that Hulkenberg is another Villeneuve, but I do see him as very much a future star. If Ferrari don’t have some sort of agreement with him down the road, I will be amazed.