Sebastian Vettel admits that he didn?t realise what a stir he?d caused by passing Mark Webber for the lead in Malaysia until he got back to the pits after the race. Vettel apologised to Webber, but curiously he also claimed … Continue reading
Only Lewis Hamilton truly knows where he wants to drive next season – and perhaps not even he does just yet. But the signs are that the saga that has been occupying Formula 1 for months is nearing its endgame.
Hamilton has two competing offers on the table for his future – one to stay at McLaren and one to move to Mercedes.
The word at the Singapore Grand Prix – for what it’s worth – was that he is leaning towards staying where he is; one McLaren insider even suggested that a deal could be inked within days.
At the same time, there may be a complication. There are suggestions that earlier this year Hamilton signed something with Mercedes – a letter of intent, a memorandum of understanding, perhaps – that he would need to get out of before he could commit to McLaren. His current team have heard talk of this, too. Hamilton’s management deny this.
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The conventional wisdom is that Mercedes are offering Hamilton more money and that the deal is sweetened further by greater freedom over personal sponsorship deals. Those are highly restricted at McLaren because of the team’s breadth of marketing tie-ups.
But BBC Sport understands it is not quite as simple as that.
For one thing, some sources say the figures quoted for the Mercedes offer in the media so far – of £60m over three years – are significantly larger than what is actually on the table.
Of course, in theory, as one of the largest car companies in the world, Mercedes can afford to pay almost any figure it wants.
But the board’s commitment to Formula 1 has been in question all year. While it is understood that the company has now reached an agreement with the sport’s commercial rights holders defining the financial terms under which they have committed for the next few years, F1 is not a money-no-object exercise for them.
McLaren believe their offer to Hamilton is broadly similar to Mercedes’, and that in terms of total remuneration he could actually end up earning more money if he stays where is.
How so? Well, it seems the headline salary figures may not differ that much – although I understand Mercedes’ offer is larger.
Mercedes offer greater freedom in terms of new sponsorship deals with which Hamilton can top up his income, and out of which his management group – music industry mogul Simon Fuller’s XIX – would take a cut that some sources say is as great as 50%, a figure XIX say is wildly exaggerated.
McLaren, by contrast, have strict rules around their driver contracts – they do not allow any personal sponsorship deal that clashes with any brand owned by a company on their car.
So deals with mobile, fashion, household products, perfumes, oil and so on are all out. Jenson Button is allowed to have his deal to endorse shampoo because it was signed before McLaren had GlaxoSmithKline as a partner.
McLaren, I’m told, have loosened some of their restrictions in an attempt to give Hamilton more freedom.
And in their favour is that all contracts contain clauses that define bonuses for success; in McLaren’s case for wins and championships. These amount to significant amounts of money and on current form Hamilton would earn more in bonuses with McLaren than with Mercedes.
Financially, it is in XIX’s interests for Hamilton to move to Mercedes – that is where they will earn most money.
But that may not be the case for Hamilton, which of course begs the question of whether the driver and his management group actually have conflicting interests.
While Hamilton has steadfastly refused to discuss his future with the media, he has been consistent in one thing. As he put it at the Italian Grand Prix earlier this month: “I want to win.”
He knows exactly how good he is and it rankles with him that he has so far won only one world title.
In which case, the last few races will have given him pause for thought.
McLaren started this season with the fastest car in F1, the first time they have done that since at least 2008 and arguably 2005.
But Hamilton’s title bid was hampered by a series of early season operational problems that prevented him winning until the seventh race of the season in Canada. Was it during this period that he signed that “something” with Mercedes?
Upgrades introduced at the German Grand Prix gave them a big step forward, making the McLaren once again the fastest car.
Progress was disguised in Hockenheim by a wet qualifying session, which allowed Alonso to take the pole position from which he controlled the race.
Even then, though, with Hamilton out of the reckoning after an early puncture, Button ran the Spaniard close.
Since then, it has been all McLaren. Hamilton won from pole in Hungary and Italy; Button the same in Belgium. Then in Singapore Hamilton lost an almost certain victory, also from pole, with a gearbox failure.
Meanwhile, Mercedes have floundered. And while rival teams agreed that a big upgrade to the silver cars in Singapore did move them forward a little, Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher only just scraped into the top 10 in qualifying and were anonymous in the race until Schumacher’s embarrassing crash with Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne.
Undoubtedly, Mercedes will have given Hamilton the hard sell.
They’ll have pointed out that they have won the world title more recently than McLaren – in their previous guise of Brawn in 2009.
They’ll have said they are a true works team backed by a huge car company, whereas McLaren are from next year paying for their “customer” Mercedes engines.
They’ll have argued that, in team boss Ross Brawn, Mercedes have the architect of the most dominant dynasty in F1 history – the Ferrari team of the early 2000s – who is determined to do it again. Triple world champion Niki Lauda, who is expected to be given a senior management role at the Mercedes team, has also been involved in trying to persuade Hamilton to join the team.
And they’ll have said Hamilton has relative commercial freedom with them to make as much money as he wants.
What they won’t have said is that the 2009 world title came about in rather exceptional circumstances and that at no other time has the team looked remotely like consistently challenging the best – whether as BAR, Honda or Mercedes.
And they won’t have said that McLaren – for all Hamilton’s frustrations over the cars he has had since 2009 and the mistakes that have been made in 2012 – have a winning record over the past 30 years that is the envy of every team in F1.
Of course, the past does not define the future, but the future is built on the past.
It’s possible that the near future of F1 is one of Mercedes hegemony, but it would be a hell of a gamble to take for a man who professes he just “wants to win”.
If the latest indications about his mind-set are correct, perhaps that is what Hamilton has now realised.
As Sebastian Vettel put down his winner’s trophy after holding it up in celebration on the Korean Grand Prix podium, Fernando Alonso tapped him on the back and reached out to shake his hand. It was a symbolic reflection of the championship lead being handed from one to the other.
After three consecutive victories for Vettel and Red Bull, the last two of which have been utterly dominant, it does not look as though Alonso is going to be getting it back.
Alonso will push to the end, of course, and he made all the right noises after the race, talking about Ferrari “moving in the right direction” and only needing “a little step to compete with Red Bull”.
“Four beautiful races to come with good possibilities for us to fight for the championship,” he said, adding: “Now we need to score seven points more than Sebastian. That will be extremely tough but we believe we can do it.”
Sebastian Vettel won the Korean GP by finishing ahead of team-mate Mark Webber and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso (left). Photo: Reuters
Indeed, a couple of hours after the race, Alonso was quoting samurai warrior-philosophy again on his Twitter account, just as he had in Japan a week before.
“I’ve never been able to win from start to finish,” he wrote. “I only learned not to be left behind in any situation.”
Fighting against the seemingly inevitable is his only option. The facts are that the Ferrari has been slower than the Red Bull in terms of outright pace all year, and there is no reason to suspect anything different in the final four races of the season.
Vettel’s victory in Korea was utterly crushing in the manner of so many of his 11 wins in his dominant 2011 season. The Red Bull has moved on to another level since Singapore and Vettel, as he always does in that position, has gone with it.
Up and down the pit lane, people are questioning how Red Bull have done it, and a lot of attention has fallen on the team’s new ‘double DRS’ system.
This takes an idea introduced in different form by Mercedes at the start the season and, typically of Red Bull’s design genius Adrian Newey, applies it in a more elegant and effective way.
It means that when the DRS overtaking aid is activated – and its use is free in practice and qualifying – the car benefits from a greater drag reduction, and therefore more straight-line speed than its rivals.
Vettel has been at pains to emphasise that this does not help Red Bull in the race, when they can only use the DRS in a specified zone when overtaking other cars. But that’s not the whole story.
The greater drag reduction in qualifying means that the team can run the car with more downforce than they would otherwise be able to – because the ‘double DRS’ means they do not suffer the normal straight-line speed deficit of doing so.
That means the car’s overall lap time is quicker, whether in race or qualifying. So although the Red Bull drivers can’t use the ‘double DRS’ as a lap-time aid in the actual grands prix, they are still benefiting from having it on the car.
And they are not at risk on straights in the race because the extra overall pace, from the greater downforce, means they are far enough ahead of their rivals for them not to be able to challenge them, let alone overtake them. As long as they qualify at the front, anyway.
It’s not all down to the ‘double DRS’, though. McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe said in Korea: “They appear to have made a good step on their car. I doubt that is all down to that system. I doubt if a lot of it is down to that system, actually. You’ll probably find it’s just general development.”
BBC F1 technical analyst Gary Anderson will go into more details on this in his column on Monday. Whatever the reasons for it, though, Red Bull’s rediscovered dominant form means Alonso is in trouble.
While Red Bull have been adding great chunks of performance to their car, Ferrari have been fiddling around with rear-wing design, a relatively small factor in overall car performance.
They have admitted they are struggling with inconsistency between the results they are getting in testing new parts in their wind tunnel and their performance on the track, so it is hard to see how they will close the gap on a Red Bull team still working flat out on their own updates.
The Ferrari has proved adaptable and consistent, delivering strong performances at every race since a major upgrade after the first four grands prix of the year.
But the only time Alonso has had definitively the quickest car is when it has been raining. It is in the wet that he took one of his three wins, and both his poles.
But he cannot realistically expect it to rain in the next three races in Delhi, Abu Dhabi and Austin, Texas. And after that only Brazil remains. So Alonso is effectively hoping for Vettel to hit problems, as he more or less admitted himself on Sunday.
How he must be ruing the bad breaks of those first-corner retirements in Belgium and Japan – even if they did effectively only cancel out Vettel’s two alternator failures in Valencia and Monza.
If anyone had reason on Sunday to regret what might have been, though, it was Lewis Hamilton, who has driven fantastically well all season only to be let down by his McLaren team in one way or another.
Hamilton, his title hopes over, wasted no time in pointing out after the race in Korea that the broken anti-roll bar that dropped him from fourth to 10th was the second suspension failure in as many races, and a broken gearbox robbed him of victory at the previous race in Singapore.
Operational problems in the early races of the season also cost him a big chunk of points.
Hamilton wears his heart on his sleeve, and in one off-the-cuff remark to Finnish television after the race, he revealed a great deal about why he has decided to move to Mercedes next year.
“It’s a day to forget,” Hamilton said. “A year to forget as well. I’m looking forward to a fresh start next year.”
In other words, I’ve had enough of four years of not being good enough, for various reasons, and I might as well try my luck elsewhere.
There was another post-race comment from Hamilton, too, that said an awful lot. “I hope Fernando keeps pushing,” he said.
Hamilton did not reply when asked directly whether that meant he wanted Alonso to win the title. But you can be sure that remark is a reflection of Hamilton’s belief that he is better than Vettel, that only Alonso is his equal.
Whether that is a correct interpretation of the standing of the three best drivers in the world, it will take more than this season to tell.
In the meantime, if Alonso and Ferrari are not to be mistaken in their belief that they still have a chance, “keeping pushing” is exactly what they must do. Like never before.