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GP Week : Issue 169
21 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: As I see it, here are the pros and cons of Lewis’ decision to join Mercedes AMG F1: PROS: 1) Works team, with an eye on 2014 engine regs; 2) New challenge; 3) Greater freedom for personal sponsors, boosting earnings* CONS: 1) Lacks McLaren’s success record; 2) 2014 engine regs remain uncertain; 3) Leaving a team that was built around him for a team that was built around others. Friday’s press releases, revealing this major shift in the driver market, marks one of the biggest news days in recent F1 memory, up there with Michael Schumacher’s first retirement and McLaren’s $100 million fine. I remember vividly where I was when those stories broke. On Friday, when Mercedes’ announcement landed in my Inbox I was at a truck stop about 200km from Saigon, tucking into a cha siu bao. The news wasn’t a total surprise, but I nearly spat my mouthful out anyway. Lewis, who also stayed out in Asia between the races, only informed McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh of his decision to defect two days earlier. I wonder how Martin took it. I imagine the Woking end of the phone line went very quiet for a while. As I understand it, McLaren upped their bid for Lewis in the final week of negotiation to match Merc’s basic offer, but by then the damage had already been done. Originally the team were asking Lewis to take a pay cut of a third, so as to bring the salaries of their two drivers in-line. No one likes taking a pay cut. Unless economic factors are involved (like the reduction to which Jenson Button agreed at Brawn) it tells you the company believes you’re underperforming and would like to replace you. You can understand Lewis reacting badly to that; after all, the team haven’t given him a car that can win a championship since 2008, yet he’s always been up there. Had his car not failed on him in Singapore he’d be breathing down Fernando’s neck right now. Therefore, who can blame him for fielding other offers? McLaren may have matched Merc in the last gasp of negotiations, but that was too little too late. They played hardball against their strongest asset and lost. Originally, with Red Bull’s seats fully booked and Alonso poised to block any thoughts of Ferrari, McLaren thought Lewis had nowhere else to turn. They figured Lotus couldn’t afford him (probably right) and that Mercedes couldn’t offer a comparable technical package. Time will tell if they’re right about the latter. It’s a big gamble, given Mercedes have only won one race in three years and never looked like title chasers. Sure, the Brackley squad has won the title more recently than McLaren, as Brawn GP, but the circumstances of 2009 were exceptional. Then again, 2014 is set to be exceptional too with new engine regulations that could favour works team Mercedes over customers McLaren – if, of course, Bernie Ecclestone fails to stop 1.6 turbos from happening, which he is trying to do. Up until now, Mercedes-Benz’ investment in their team has been cautious, Now, with Hamilton on their books and a new Concorde agreement signed, I would expect them to go all out. And with the right resources, you simply cannot underestimate Ross Brawn’s abilities. A lot has been written by my Fleet Street colleagues in the last few days about Lewis’ McLaren exit being akin to a teenager leaving home. There’s a bond there, but it needs to be broken. The relationship has run its course. The strains had been showing all year. Both parties know, deep down, it’s time for Lewis to be his own man. And for that reason I do hope that the decision was all his. In a situation like this you’re pulled from all sides. His management, XIX, know all about lucrative deals. And here we come to the asterisk: * With greater freedom for personal sponsors Lewis’ celebrity can grow on both sides of the Atlantic, fronting billboard campaigns for fashion brands and multinationals that were limited at McLaren. It’ll mean more money and more mainstream fame, which is something Lewis craves as he looks beyond his racing career to opportunities in the entertainment industry, particularly in the US. However, XIX will take a hefty cut of these deals – I heard as much as 50 percent. It was, therefore, in XIX’s interests that they got Lewis out of McLaren. There’s a trend here; XIX’s other big sporting client is David Beckham, who left Real Madrid for LA Galaxy. In doing so, he made even more money and became even more famous globally, but despite a couple of brief cameos he’s rarely been seen playing against the world’s best since. McLaren are like Real Madrid, with more trophies than they know what to do with. At Mercedes, Lewis will finally be able to keep his trophies, but if he doesn’t win any that’s a moot point. OPINION OPINION ADAM HAY-NICHOLLS F1 Editor TREND IT LIKE BECKHAM