Time for Lewis to grow up: Mercedes move gives Hamilton chance to spread his wings
21:42 GMT, 28 September 2012
Humid air outside, air-conditioned splendour inside, two men in deep conversation, a momentous agreement nearing completion.
I can reveal that was the scene in Singapore’s Conrad Centennial Hotel in the late hours after last Sunday’s Grand Prix as Niki Lauda and Lewis Hamilton sat down for the last in a series of chats that culminated in the confirmation that Mercedes have signed him.
Lauda, the three-time world champion who is the new head of Mercedes’ F1 board, spoke in that direct, declamatory Austrian way of his about how Mercedes were the super-team of the future. He talked of new engineers, limitless funding and team principal Ross Brawn’s championship-winning pedigree.
End of the road: Lewis Hamilton and McLaren are parting company
He spoke with the authority that had been invested in him by the chairman of Mercedes’ parent company Daimler, Dr Dieter Zetsche, who told him: find out what the hell is going on with our F1 team and put it right.
One suspects that Mercedes were evaluating what to do: pull out or throw everything into success. Lauda knew they had plumped for the latter and sold that vision to Hamilton, who had spent several weeks looking all the key Mercedes men — Brawn, Lauda, and Mercedes’ head of motor sport Norbert Haug — in the eye. He was won over.
That is why Hamilton is taking only a qualified gamble in walking out on McLaren, the 20-times winners of the drivers’ and constructors’ titles combined.
A day on from our exclusive revelation that the deal was done, I remain convinced that there was one key consideration in Hamilton’s mind beyond Mercedes’ competitive potential. Here was an opportunity for Hamilton to redefine himself away from the caring but at times suffocating atmosphere of the team where he would always be seen as young Lewis, the kid in a kart who joined at 13.
Sure, Mercedes, being a giant carmaker rather than a racing team who are reliant on sponsors themselves, will allow his management team, XIX Entertainment, to carve out his own lucrative endorsements. Sony, adidas, Coca-Cola, who knows what else, await.
Teaming up again: Hamilton and Nico Rosberg during their karting days
But that, it seems, was a secondary consideration. If we doubt that, we should ask ourselves, first, how would he feel if he was losing every race over the next three years, and, secondly, how would his earning potential consequently be curtailed by being a serial non-winner The money would finally dry up.
Since knowing Hamilton from his days in GP2, Formula One’s feeder series, I have seen him constantly battle against his own immaturity in an attempt to find his real self.
Yes, he thrived off the traction provided by his relationship with his dad, Anthony, who was also his manager. But when Lewis dispensed with his father’s services two years ago some of us hailed it as a welcome part of his growing up process.
Nevertheless, part of Hamilton was lost. Symbiosis has inescapable rules. The growing pains since have been obvious, and, at times, painful to behold. Heavens, this year he has intermittently been hopelessly sullen and self-pitying.
Ambition: Mercedes look to be making a fresh assault on Formula One
As for posting team telemetry on Twitter last month, it was a sacking offence. Yet McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, a nice man with a chummy style of driver management, exercised no governance over his man. No fine. No serious admonishment. Pathetic. Perhaps he feared pushing Hamilton away amid delicate contract talks. Well, look where it got him.
That said, Hamilton likes Whitmarsh. More than he does McLaren chairman Ron Dennis, whose cold manner after the win at this month’s Italian Grand Prix registered with Hamilton.
The hope is that 27-year-old Hamilton, away from McLaren, will finally act his age. Or is he destined always to attract trouble A bit of both, probably.
Certainly, his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button will not miss him. He was dismayed by the telemetry tweeting.
Word is that Button will now jealously guard his data from Hamilton for the remaining six races of the season. It may hinder, but not necessarily ruin, Hamilton’s hopes of coming from 52 points back to sign off from McLaren as world champion.