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.