It’s by no means unusual for wild rumours concerning driver contracts to emerge and spread around the second half of a Formula 1 season. After all, they don’t call it the ‘silly season’ for nothing. In the case of Lewis Hamilton however, the coverage of his contract negotiations have all but descended into farce and pose to seriously damage the reputation of a driver that came to Formula 1 with a vastly different image to that which supporters are currently presented with. How did it all get to this and is the Lewis Hamilton we are currently presented with the real deal or the creation of other forces?
Well before it commenced, the 2007 Formula 1 World Championship was always going to be extremely important for Formula 1. The retirement of the sports most successful and identifiable figure, seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, would leave a noticeable void on the grid that had the potential to see the attention of the sport within the media drop considerably. Cue Lewis Hamilton, one of the most highly regarded drivers ever to debut in Formula 1, and with an image that propelled him into the consciouness of sporting fans well beyond the boundaries of both the United Kingdom and Formula 1 itself. I had the great privilege of witnessing Hamilton’s debut in Formula 1 at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix, where it took all but 300 metres for Hamilton to display, in emphatic fashion, that he would not be over-awed by his teammate, reigning double world champion Fernando Alonso. Finding himself sqeezed to the inside right by Robert Kubica off the line, Hamilton deftly jinked back to the outside left, swooping around the outside of both Kubica and Alonso and through to second. While the opening corner demonstrated Hamiltons brilliant racecraft, it was the failure of Alonso to make any impression on the gap to his team mate in the ensuing laps that was simply astonishing. In his debut race, on a venue he had never been to previously, Hamilton was matching Alonso’s times. The new generation had arrived and as the season progressed to an epic three-way title fight amidst growing tensions within the McLaren team, and the fallout from the ‘spygate’ controversy, the absence of “The Schu” was long forgotten. While trying to avoid generalisation and remaining as impartial as possible, what can be said of Hamilton’s image following his first season in Formula 1?
It was inevitable that media attention would focus on Hamilton’s dark skin colour, after all, Narain Karthikeyan was the only other black driver at the time, to have ever taken part in a Formula 1 race. Examples of the media’s take on Hamilton’s success was to pitch him as the Tiger Woods of Motor Racing, a headline certainly not discouraged in the United Statesless world of Formula 1. Aside from his aesthetic uniqueness, Hamilton provided the media and spectators alike with a very humble, grounded and highly appreciative persona. This was despite the enormous expectation, pressure and distractions that come with being a highly paid athlete in one of the most elitist sports in the world. Perhaps one of the more significant interviews is that which he gave to Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear where he stated “who would’ve thought, I’m just your average guy and got an amazing opportunity to come to Formula 1” and on Fernando Alonso, “he’s a bloody good driver I tell you”, despite the Spaniard having caused great angst within the McLaren team throughout Hamilton’s debut season. Here was a marketable, likeable, and seemingly down-to-earth sportsmen with ability the likes of which had rarely been seen in Formula 1. So has this image changed and if so when and why?
It’s a saying applied to all forms of life, but you are only as good as your last performance, so that when Hamilton became involved in a number of on-track incidents throughout 2011, which raised the eyre of race stewards, Hamilton famously responded at the conclusion of the Monaco Grand Prix that there interest in him “must be because I’m black”. This demeanor was in very sharp contrast to his very public apology to the media following his decision to deceive stewards at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix on the advice of his team, by denying that he let Jarno Trulli past under a safety car, despite the statement resulting in a penalty to the Toyota driver. With further incidents throughout 2011, it didn’t take long for expert commentators like Eddie Jordan to give their opinions/advice on what the source of Hamilton’s difficulties were, something never considered in Hamilton’s career to that point. In an interview with sport360.com Jordan pointed to what he saw as the superior working environment established by Hamilton’s teammate Jenson Button. Chiefly among these differences was the almost constant presence of Button’s father John and his girlfriend, Jessica Michibata. In sharp contrast, Hamilton’s father was no longer managing him, instead dealing with other matters that meant he was not present at every race and even meant that when he was, he was with Paul Di Resta in whom he was now managing. Hamilton’s girlfriend, American singer Nicole Scherzinger, was also understandably absent from a significant number of events due to her own professional commitments. It must be said however that these were the professional circumstances surrounding Hamilton throughout his succesful 2010 season with the only exception being Hamilton’s new management company. For starters, who are Hamilton’s new managers and following a relatively unsuccessful 2011 season, has Hamilton’s public image shifted and can this be seen to have anything to do with his new management?
If you were to ask even the most ardent of Formula 1 fans, very few could name the mangers of any drivers in Formula 1. However, since signing in March of 2011, XIX Entertainment has achieved an uncanny amount of publicity in their role as managers for Lewis Hamilton, and, if they abide by the notion that any publicity is good publicity, then its founder, Simon Fuller, will be more than pleased because criticism has come from all directions. In an on-line article in the British Guardian newspaper dated 13 December 2011 Hamilton defended his management company, criticised in the media by Bernie Ecclestone for distracting the former world champion with their celebrity clients. If one were to look at Hamilton’s twitter account they would perhaps question whether Hamilton was secretly moon lighting as a hip-hop star, and that’s before you even read his comments, which include the occasional use of words like ‘chillin’, ‘dope’ and ‘homie’. While some may be puzzled by this persona, I do think that this is closer to the genuine Lewis Hamilton as even in his Top Gear interview in 2007 he delighted in his choice of a G Class Mercedes-Benz, referring to it as a ‘pimp wagon’. While I think Hamilton is displaying his personal taste for things outside of motor sport, it would be remiss of people to view Hamilton as being fake and materialistic. Instead, Hamilton continues to provide very profound statements on his Twitter feed including this on 23 September 2012 “Everything is so finite but that’s what makes our time and specific moments so important. We are all stars!!”. It is this very emotional, almost naive side to Hamilton that makes me question whether he has the capacity to identify when someone is not acting in his best interests, and stand up to them. After all, for years Hamilton had been managed by his father, and who would want to doubt those intentions. It is with this opinion in mind that I look towards the current contractual negotiations and why it is that Hamilton should start to stand up for himself?
It is important to note that while XIX Entertainment do manage sportsmen like David Beckham and Andy Murray, they mainly manage singers and musicians, leading some to believe they may be out of touch with the limited room for negotiation that can occur in the sport of Formula 1 where there are only 24 available positions, and it is often the teams that hold the control in negotiations.
In an article for the British Telegraph dated 16 September 2012, Tom Cary writes that XIX Entertainment denied they were pushing Hamilton to change to Mercedes to increase their revenue on their new client. The article goes on to outline how McLaren’s tight rules on allowing drivers to have personal sponsors, is extremely restrictive to the revenues of a management company like XIX Entertainment, who allegedly take a percentage on salary and endorsement contracts. The article suggests that Hamilton has been offered by Mercedes as much as 60 million pounds over three years with greater freedom to pursue personal endorsements. In hiring Michael Schumacher, Mercedes have already shown a willingness to allow Schumacher to have his own sponsors which include German financial advisors DVAG on the German’s hat, and Navyboot on his overalls, both of which do not appear on Nico Rosberg’s clothing. The article claims that a source close to XIX Entertainment stated that “The most important thing for Lewis Hamilton right now is to win more world championships – and that is the most important thing for Simon as well”. In McLaren’s defence, they did allow Hamilton to sign with clothing giant Reebok in 2008, a contract he still maintains today.
It came as very little surprise to this writer that with the end of a 5-year contract emerging and the signing of a high profile management team, Hamilton’s best chance of maximising his value was to spread rumours of his possible move to another team. The situation was not lost on Ron Dennis who was quick to indicate that McLaren were in charge of negotiations saying,”I think people get the wrong impression though, as when I last looked at the contract I was paying him. It’s a question of whether we employ him. Not the other way around.” Despite being financially supported by McLaren throughout almost his entire career leading up to Formula 1, Hamilton has clearly displayed at recent race weekends of having no real loyalty with McLaren. This may well have come as a result of Ron Dennis’ remarks following Hamilton’s win in Canada this year where he said Hamilton was “…on the end of a contract that was signed at a time when the economy was somewhat different. Now there has to be a balance”. These comments tie in with reports during the Singapore weekend from the UK Daily Mail that Hamilton has been offered 5 million pounds a year less than his previous 15 million pound a year contract. However, it is in the opinion of this writer that Hamilton and his management have simply found themselves being the victim of circumstance, because both Red Bull and Ferrari, as good a driver as Hamilton is, have each got the other two most talented drivers in the sport in Vettel and Alonso.
Fully aware that two very rarely goes into one, Ferrari and Red Bull are more than content to keep their number 1 drivers happy. So where else could Hamilton go? Renault or Mercedes? With Renault wanting to maintain Raikkonen after a terrific 2012 season and Grosjean bringing form and sponsorship, Hamilton’s management were left to work with a possible switch to Mercedes in replacing Michael Schumacher. The legitimacy of this move would be sold on the following grounds: that Schumacher had been struggling to perform and is nearing the end of his career; Hamilton is a good friend of Rosberg’s having raced alongside him in go-karting; Hamilton has strong connections with the Mercedes brand through McLaren; Rule changes in 2014 could favour factory Formula 1 teams; and McLaren can’t afford to lose Hamilton. The sceptics would have fewer reasons to doubt a move to Mercedes but they are very persuasive nevertheless: Hamilton is not German and Nico Hulkenberg is; and the Mercedes team have won only one race in three seasons, or to put it another way, in three years they have only won one more race than HRT. It is the use of Mercedes Benz as a bargaining tool that leaves this writer thinking that the only bargaining tool in these negotiations is Simon Fuller, because no matter how much they may suggest that McLaren can’t afford to lose Hamilton, it is Hamilton that simply can’t afford to lose.
Were Hamilton to move to Mercedes for 2013 it would rank as one of the strangest team moves since Damon Hill signed with Arrows Yamaha for the 1997 season. While Hill’s decision was a bizarre, and as history showed, disastrous choice, the circumstances that surround a decision by Hamilton to move to Mercedes make it equally strange. For starters, Hamilton is not being sacked by his current employer as Hill was with Williams. He is not at the end of his career and has managed to only achieve one world championship in a team that has supported him well before his Formula 1 career. Unlike Schumacher’s motivation for moving to Ferrari in 1996, Hamilton has continued to stress that winning is his priority, a sentiment shared by his idol Ayrton Senna, who was prepared to race for free so that he could drive for Williams in 1993. It does appear that if Hamilton approves of the current negotiations with McLaren, his priorities differ with Senna in that the Brazilian only showed loyalty to McLaren provided they could provide him with winning machinery. Put simply, it is very rare for a Formula 1 driver to turn down an offer to drive for a winning team, in favour for a comparatively poorer performing team, particularly when that other team is not Ferrari.
Following the emergence of the ‘Hamilton to Mercedes’ rumours, the opinion of the media and of this writer was best summed up by the Associated Press journalist Ian Parkes during the Thursday morning press conference prior to the Italian Grand Prix. For those not acquainted, the Thursday morning press conference is a ritual during which the only people more bored than those answering the questions are those that ask them. However, In a beautifully logical manner, Parkes entered into the following series of questions:
Parkes: Good morning Lewis. Just in general terms from your personal perspective, what would be the attraction or the positives in joining a team like Mercedes?
Hamilton: I have no idea. Not really thought about it.
Parkes: Nico can I turn that around to you then. What would be the attraction for Lewis to join team like Mercedes?
Rosberg: Well I can say it from my perspective. From my perspective Mercedes and Ferrari are on one level in terms of the history in F1 and the standing. You know it’s very special to drive for the silver arrow and especially to win with the silver arrow.
Parkes: Lewis does that resonate with you?
Hamilton: Grins and smiles together with audible laughter. (Probably more a reflection of perhaps how comical Rosberg’s suggestion that the Mercedes of the 50s is relatable to today’s team.)
Parkes: So looking at it in general terms. Mercedes [Think he really means to say McLaren] have won the last two races, Mercedes have only won 1 race in the last three years. Does that put it into perspective for you as to where your priorities might lie?
Hamilton: I don’t think I’m really looking for anything to put anything into perspective. I drive for McLaren, we’ve won the last two races, we’ve got another great weekend hopefully ahead of us, and that’s what I need to focus on.
What emerges from this interaction is that either Hamilton is simply lying or he has put the control of his Formula 1 career so far out of his control, that he “has not really thought about” why he would move to Mercedes. Equally, the final question is designed to make Hamilton look like a fool because if he wants to win as he says, the choice is obvious, and while Mercedes was the only card he could play, it is such a weak play, that the longer negotiations take, the more it reveals his motivation and further damages his image in the eyes of the media and spectators alike.
However, if the surprisingly well-informed Eddie Jordan is to be believed, not only is Hamilton moving to Mercedes, but the decision will be announced this Wednesday. Consumed by the machinations of a process that has increasingly slipped from his control? or a process he condoned? The truth may unfortunately never emerge, but regardless of whether Hamilton joins McLaren or Mercedes he will struggle to shake the perception that he is both greedy and lacking in loyalty.
That is of course until the real Lewis Hamilton puts an end to this circus. The question is, is he game?
Are the protracted negotiations with McLaren the work of Lewis Hamilton? Has he allowed it to get out of control and is it damaging his public image? Comments welcomed