Hamilton’s Next Lap

Lewis Hamilton has made a bold switch from McLaren to Mercedes. To make a go of it, Hamilton and the car will both have to grow up
NEW WHEELS
Lewis Hamilton (left) with Sauber F1 driver Sergio Perez, who has been signed up by McLaren for the next season
F1 team Mercedes is set to replace Michael Schumacher with Lewis Hamilton (Photo: AFP)

The Formula One caravan rolls into Delhi this week. The Buddh International Circuit (BIC) in Greater Noida, on the National Capital Region’s outskirts, will host its second Indian Grand Prix from 26 to 28 October. The drivers’ championship hangs in balance, with Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull (215 points) leading Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso by just six points. The 17th race of the season will play a major role in deciding where the title heads.

The attention of most fans will be on Vettel and Alonso. But there are a couple of other interesting storylines. It will be the last time Michael Schumacher will race on Indian soil. Two, Lewis Hamilton will drive for the last time at BIC in a McLaren. Hamilton will replace Schumacher at Mercedes next year. Hamilton’s move is the talk of Formula One these days.

Hamilton snubbed a contract renewal from McLaren and signed a three-year deal reportedly worth $100 million with Mercedes GP starting 2013, ending a 13-year-old relationship with the British team. Some called the decision a mistake. Many called it a risk. Mercedes have been no match for McLaren. In 54 races since returning to F1 as a proper team in 2010, Mercedes have won just a single race, compared to 16 by McLaren.

The script is a bit like Cristiano Ronaldo’s, who quit Manchester United to join Real Madrid in 2009. At that time, Real were going through a lean patch, not having won the Champions League title since 2002 and the Spanish League since 2008. Ronaldo was a catalyst in Real’s recovery, helping them clinch their first domestic title in four years (2011-12) and scoring 60 goals in all, breaking his own record (53) set for the Los Blancos the previous season (2010-11).

Hamilton is now set to walk a similar path. He is Ronaldo in this analogy; McLaren are Manchester United, while Mercedes are Real Madrid.

Hamilton also invites comparison with Schumacher, the winner of seven World Championships. In 1996, Schumacher also made a bold move. He joined Ferrari after winning two world titles with Benetton. At that time, Ferrari were struggling. They had won their last title in 1979. But then the German won five consecutive titles with Scuderia Ferrari, dominating the sport for much of the last decade.

But Schumacher had to wait almost four years before he could taste glory with Ferrari. Asked by Autosport if he wanted to emulate the seven-time World Champion (by leaving his comfort zone), Hamilton said, “That’s exactly it. I don’t feel like any of the drivers are doing that nowadays. I could take the easy route and just stay at McLaren and just cruise on for the next three years in a great team and a great car, making decent money. But that’s not what I want to do—I want to go and struggle. I want to help [Mercedes] get to the top and start winning. That’s going to be the coolest, most satisfying feeling if we do get there. And if we don’t, I’ll only be 31 at the end of it.”
Indian racing car driver Karun Chandhok, who has moved to Endurance racing after he did not get an F1 contract this year, says he understands Hamilton’s restlessness. “I think it’s a big gamble but I also think that is why [Hamilton has] done it,” Karun tells Open. “The safe option would’ve been to stay at McLaren but obviously Lewis [Hamilton] felt he was at a bit of a crossroads and at this time needed a new challenge.”

Hamilton agrees he may not win a single race with the Silver Arrows in 2013. But that could change the following year. In 2014, the sport will see the introduction of V6 1.6 litre turbo specification engines. This could work in favour of Hamilton. Mercedes are one of the few teams that have been producing V6 engines for their road cars. Producing them for F1 will just be an extension of something they are already doing. They have made huge investments by getting the right personnel for their 2014 project. Karun believes Mercedes will become a genuine title contender once the new regulations roll in. “I’m sure Mercedes will be right up there with the 2014 engines,” he says, “They have a great engine department in Brixworth.”

Vicky Chandhok, president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI) and Karun’s father, disagrees: “It’s not the engine that matters. A lot will depend on the design of the car. It’s too early to say what impact [V6 engines] will have, as Mercedes and McLaren both will have identical engines.”

The other ace up Mercedes’ sleeve is Team Principal Ross Brawn. He was the vital cog in Schumacher’s paddock when he ruled the sport. The 57-year-old also played a major role in creating Brawn GP after Honda pulled out midway in 2008. The following year, having been written off by experts, Brawn GP surprised everyone by sweeping away the Drivers and Constructors titles. Brawn had done the preparatory work for this success back in 2007. It was with his vision that they came up with a race-winning car. With Brawn the Brain available to them and Hamilton, and with new rules on their way, Mercedes have reason to be optimistic about their chances.

In Formula One, behind every successful man stands a team of smart and committed people with oil-stained hands. Brawn apart, Mercedes appointed Aldo Costa (ex-Ferrari) and Bob Bell (ex-Renault) as engineering directors to oversee car design and development.

They also hired Geoffrey Willis, a former technical director at Red Bull, to take charge of aerodynamics. These developments are sure to have been a factor in Hamilton’s decision.

“The interesting thing is that people like Ross Brawn and Aldo Costa were with Michael [Schumacher] in those Ferrari glory years and are now going to be working with Lewis [Hamilton],” says Karun. “[Mercedes] have some very clever people at the top—it’s a question of getting the right people further down the chain to do the job. They have all the ingredients in terms of budget and infrastructure to make it a success.”

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Hamilton made a roaring start to his career. The former GP2 Champion made his debut for the Silverstone-based McLaren in 2007 at age 22 and surprised everyone by finishing second behind Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. He won the title the following year. But of late he hasn’t been in the championship fray. He will be judged by his ability to win trophies with Mercedes.

This season, Mercedes have failed to produce consistent results. They are fifth in the championship table. They might slip lower, with teams like Sauber F1 and Force India snapping at their heels with three races to go. Hamilton will need to bring consistency and help the team improve the car. It will not be an entirely unfamiliar challenge; in 2008 and 2009, he had to guide the fortunes of McLaren more or less single-handedly. Hamilton won the 2008 championship and finished fifth in 2009, while his teammate Heikki Kovalainen finished a distant seventh and 12th in 2008 and 2009, respectively. “A big part of [the title race] will be down to the team’s technical ability,” says Karun. “They started this [2012] season strongly, but have slipped back. This has been a bit of a trend through the BAR/Honda/Brawn/Mercedes days, and the team will be looking at how they work on their in-season development. There’s no doubt that Hamilton has the ability to be World Champion with them if the car is up to it.”
Hari Singh, a five-time Indian National Rally Champion and F1 enthusiast who heads The Rally Academy, an initiative to groom youngsters, agrees that Hamilton has the talent to take Mercedes to the next level. “He has the ability to provide the right kind of input to the team. He just needs to become a team player.”

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Team player. That’s the operative term. Hamilton is not known to have the best relationships with his teammates. In his maiden season, he was embroiled in a bitter rivalry with his then teammate Fernando Alonso. It spilled over on the race track as they both fought for the title in 2007. In the final race, both were involved in an ontrack incident that saw both fall inches short of the title. The following two years, Hamilton didn’t have a teammate who could challenge his No1 status. Then, a major star, 2009 World champion Jenson Button, arrived at McLaren in 2010. In 2011, Hamilton lost for the first time to his teammate. Button finished second with 270 points, while Hamilton was fifth with 227.

Button, a former Honda and Brawn GP driver, is known for his smooth handling of the car. In this, he is a complete contrast to Hamilton, who is aggressive and hard on the tyres. Over time, Button appeared to have become McLaren’s favourite driver. Two superstars, both countrymen, both teammates. Things were bound to get tense. Tension arose over a trivial issue. Hamilton accused Button of ‘unfollowing’ him on Twitter. Hamilton later realised that Button never followed him in the first place. Both downplayed the incident later, but there is no denying their rivalry.

Earlier, Hamilton had been sharing team data on Twitter, which had left Button disappointed. Over the years, Hamilton has also been involved in a string of other controversial incidents.

Vicky Chandhok feels Hamilton will have to show a lot of maturity if he has to achieve further success. “He will have to change his approach and mindset to gain success with Mercedes.”

Karun feels Hamilton has an opportunity to join a special list of drivers who have won World Championships with different teams. “People like Juan Manuel Fangio, Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda and Michael Schumacher are famous for going to different teams and becoming World Champions with them. Hamilton can replicate [their success].”
The wheel is in Hamilton’s hands.