Delay over Lewis Hamilton's new deal a sign of the cold winds of economic change gripping F1
Seven-time world champion talks with Mercedes ongoing as company faces the most challenging time in their history as the pandemic rages
Lewis Hamilton may have won another world title and survived coronavirus but his Formula One battles are far from finished.
The seven-time world champion has only just sounded the starting gun on talks over his future at Mercedes that are usually wrapped up in mid-summer.
And you have to ask yourself why both sides have left the deal to hang in the air for so long? It can hardly be because they agree on everything.
On Hamilton’s side it has been a season of prolific domination, and he has done his bit in the cockpit by matching Michael Schumacher’s record championship tally.
The benefits of having the Brit in the car are empirical. At least as far as a comparison with Valtteri Bottas is concerned. In four years together Hamilton has won four titles; Bottas just nine races.
His other six titles aside, Hamilton started from pole 10 times and won 11 races. Bottas started on pole five times and won just twice. That stat alone demonstrates the Brit can be relied upon to bring home the goods. Bottas not so much.
It’s a well-worn phrase that Mercedes are so dominant anyone could win in that car. Clearly not. Not consistently anyway.
But George Russell’s baptism of fire in Bahrain showed there are quality options out there for them. As a Bottas replacement certainly. But maybe even as a Hamilton substitute too.
While they ponder Hamilton’s salary demands topping $40 million Mercedes are taking a record hit to their profitability and face, perhaps, the most challenging time in their history as the pandemic rages.
They made €1.64 billion in the last quarter of 2018 but an €11 million loss for the same period in 2019.
New Daimler Benz boss Ola Kallenius, who doesn’t have the best of relationships with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, is looking to save €1.4 billion over the next two years. Or roughly a little over what they are spending each year on F1. The company is also axing thousands of jobs.
The public appetite to go electric has caught everyone unaware and Mercedes are investing $42bn to catch up and plan to unveil around 130 different electrified models by 2030.
Money has also been put aside for pollution law suits and government investigations in the United States and Germany on their diesel emission practices. All in a shrinking car market.
Closer to home, F1 team bosses have agreed a cap on driver salaries. The (debated) figure is $25m per team (not per driver). AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost wants it set at $10m: “They earn way too much money. They should be happy they have this job and that they also earn a little money.” The cold wind of economic reality really is whistling through the sport just now.
Then there is the approaching departure of Mercedes boss Wolff, which Hamilton will view with a great deal of trepidation.
His relationship with the Austrian is as uncomplicated as the one that preceded it, with his mentor Ron Dennis at McLaren, was complex.
Hamilton’s call for the driver’s organisation the GPDA – dubbed the richest union in the world – to stand united against the salary cap will not see them on a picket line any time soon - especially given his past ‘commitment’ to the organisation.
A $25m ceiling would only affect a select few: Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo and Hamilton himself, in any case.
All year Mercedes and Hamilton have denied talks have been taking place but that’s really not the case. Subtle steps have been made since the summer.
Some believe the Mercedes board have not only refused to countenance a big pay increase for their 'History Man' but, in this economic climate, want him to take a pay cut.
Hamilton, in turn is looking for more control over his image rights, room for more personal sponsorships and less media obligations.
But it’s difficult to divine the reality. Some sources say he wants a longer term deal to encompass retirement while others insist he’ll only do one year at a time now to be free to feel the shifting sands of the 2022 regulation changes.
And then there’s the fact that the second seat at Red Bull is still open. Coincidence? It doesn’t seem likely.
Red Bull are in it to shift cans and Hamilton versus Verstappen would be the biggest ticket in town. Every race. All year.
And he has approached them before. Betting on ace designer Adrian Newey before a dramatic rule change is hardly the daftest idea.
But with a record eighth title to be won would Hamilton really walk away from the best car over a contract stand-off?
Mercedes struck at Hamilton’s heart with their very public support for his Black Lives Matter stand, so surely a deal is only days away.
That doesn’t alter the fact, though, that behind the smiling faces and pats on the back after every win, Hamilton and Mercedes have let the clock tick way past the 11th hour - way past - without signing on the dotted line. And that cannot be good long term. Not with the wind of change whistling through F1.
Updated: December 15, 2020 09:53 AM