Lewis Hamilton has called time on his six year stint with McLaren by signing a three year deal with rival team Mercedes. His replacement has been named by McLaren as Sauber’s Mexican driver, Sergio Perez, a man who has been courted by Ferrari for some time as a possible replacement for the struggling Felipe Massa. The move also leave’s seven times world champion Michael Schumacher out in the cold as Hamilton steps in to his shoes at Mercedes, reigniting speculation about the German legend’s possible retirement.
The Briton has had a long affiliation with the Woking based team, joining the setup as a junior aged just 13 making his switch seem all the more momentous. The rumour mill has been working on overdrive during the weeks leading up to Hamilton’s disappointing retirement from the 2012 Singapore GP. However, doubts over McLaren’s reliability this season cannot solely explain Hamilton’s decision to leave his boyhood team. McLaren apparently offered huge financial incentives in an attempt to retain their star driver but were unable to match Mercedes’ bid and the 27 year-old will now have the opportunity to earn more money through sponsorship deals.
McLaren bosses insist that Hamilton has made a mistake in walking away from one of the most successful teams in F1 history. But the man himself is determined to replicate the success of his 2008 world championship victory with his new team, something that has eluded him over the last four years at McLaren. To do that, Mercedes have allegedly promised Hamilton that they will stage a major assault at the title in 2014, the year when new regulations on engines and chassis come in to force. It seems that the Briton is looking to play the long game.
Meanwhile, Perez will be tasked with filling the gaping void in the McLaren garage. Ferrari have made no secret of their admiration for the young Mexican, who narrowly missed out on his maiden GP victory this year in Malaysia. However, team bosses at the prancing horse had recently claimed that it was too early for the Sauber man to join their ranks. With these latest developments, the Italian stallion looks to have left it too late.
As for Schumacher, his F1 future really does hang in the balance. His comeback with Mercedes has clearly been a huge disappointment, securing just one podium finish in three years. Peter Sauber has left the door open for the German to step in at his team, but this would undoubtedly represent a significant step down for the great man. With Massa under pressure for his place, a commercially mouth-watering fairy-tale return to Ferrari could be an option, but surely that idea remains pure fantasy.
The ramifications of Hamilton’s decision will reverberate around the F1 paddock for a long time to come, but has he effectively taken a step down the ladder? On current form, it would seem so. McLaren’s recent mechanical gremlins should not disguise the fact that they have the best and fastest car on the grid right now, eclipsing both Ferrari and Red Bull. Mercedes find themselves scrapping around for the minor places with a car that has failed to deliver so often this season. Their task is to turn that situation around. How happy the notoriously temperamental Hamilton will be to sit through a season of ‘development’ next year is up for debate. Perhaps all the upheaval will be worth it in two years’ time. Perhaps Mercedes will propel Hamilton to his dream of a second title in 2014. Perhaps the long game is the route to success. But who’s to say that McLaren won’t still be there fighting it out at the very top when that time comes? History suggests they will be. And there’s every chance that one of their drivers might have picked up a world championship along the way. That driver could have been Lewis Hamilton. One question keeps rearing its head: what can Mercedes achieve in two years time that McLaren can’t, or haven’t already?
A logical move in the pursuit of success or a slap in the face for the team that nurtured him from a young boy in to a sporting superstar? The debate will roar on. But the fact remains; the deal has been done and the contract signed. The final curtain has come down on an unforgettable era at McLaren.