I’ve been thinking all week about the content of this Friday’s column, and my continuing frustration at a certain Lewis Hamilton (despite his magnificent win last Sunday at Monza, the home of Ferrari) when something far more important happened in the motor sports world and we lost someone who I would consider a legend. So putting the rather misguided behavior of a frustrating talent aside (but we’ll get back to that), excuse me if I take a moment to celebrate the incredible work of Professor Sid Watkins, who so sadly passed away on Wednesday.
The man deserves a column himself (and will get one in two weeks) but Sid was a pioneering neurosurgeon who transformed safety standards over the course of 26 seasons working in Formula One. Without Sid we’d no longer have the likes of Mika Hakkinen, Gerhard Berger or Karl Wendlinger with us. Sadly his greatest loss was the late, great Ayrton Senna. The day before he died, Sid said to him “give it up and let’s go fishing”. Senna’s reply was simple: “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.” They were the last words he spoke to Watkins. I urge you to search out a copy of Sid’s book, _Beyond The Limit_, in the meantime. You won’t regret the read.
So, back to Lewis Hamilton and the fervent rumor in the paddock at Monza that he was off to the (underperforming) Mercedes team to replace Michael Schumacher. You may have also seen that Hamilton decided to choose the previous weekend at Spa to post sensitive data regarding the comparative performance of his car to his teammate’s on Twitter.
Certainly you needed to be no student of psychology or body language to see that all is not entirely well between driver and team, despite his dominant win at the Italian Grand Prix. Whilst others beamed around him (including the sensational Sergio Perez) on the podium and in press interviews, Hamilton looked a more troubled figure, whilst the attending McLaren CEO, Ron Dennis made no bones that the decision whether or not Hamilton continued with McLaren (and at what cost) lay not just with the driver, but with the team, it’s backers, sponsors and board. That word TEAM again is key.
So is there an underlying problem here or has it just the type of facade that tends to go on during contract negotiations? Play one team off against the other and get the best deal? Opinions are, of course, subjective beasts, and often when one holds one as a strong belief, it can end up with them looking rather daft, particularly when not closely involved with the subject. However, saying that, as someone with some experience of managing celebrity and sporting clients, it seems reasonable to at least offer my thoughts.
In my mind, the problems Lewis is experiencing are allied with an ever increasing issue within the sporting arena, particularly prevalent in the UK. Led by the boorish bellowing of the footballing (soccer) professionals, and recently (more surprisingly) added to by some of the England Rugby Team at the last World Cup, there is a pervading illness within UK sport that has curled its fingers around Hamilton’s racing heart (and the very thing that made him a superstar in the first place) – the country’s obsession with celebrity.
The England football team has been in decline for some time now as a result of the power of the clubs, and the fact that, well, it just doesn’t matter to the players any longer. Playing football for your country is no longer a matter of pride. Securing a new £250,000 a week contract is the goal, along with how many vacuous females one can drag into a gaudy nightclub.
Lewis Hamilton parted from the day-to-day management provided by his father two years past. To be honest, that was no bad thing, every child needs to break away from parental control at some stage, and Anthony’s presence often seemed overbearing. Following a protracted period without management though, Lewis then decided to bring Simon Fuller’s celebrity group, XIX Management, to look after him. I must admit to being staggered at the time by this decision. Don’t get me wrong, XIX are a fantastic brand manager for celebrities (as their client list will testify), but Lewis, in his pursuit to be a celebrity, seems to have forgotten that he is a Formula One driver, and it is this which (in my opinion) has come back to so significantly unsettle him and has pushed him towards an uncomfortable impasse. Granted, at least someone recognized this as a problem and brought in the vastly experienced Didier Coton to work alongside XIX at the beginning of this year to try and rectify this, but Hamilton’s obsession still seems to revolve around his “brand”.
Take for example one of, for me, the most offensive sticking points in the contract negotiations, or certainly offensive for those people at the McLaren factory, working their butts off 24 hours a day. McLaren have always had a policy that both driver and constructor trophies following race wins are displayed at the base in Woking. Ostensibly this is to motivate the team workers each day as they walk in, but of course it also impresses sponsors and all visitors as you see the championship winning cars sat in front of rows and rows of trophies. Trust me on this, I’ve been there, it’s a “wow” moment for any racing fan. The drivers themselves are provided with beautiful replica trophies of their wins to keep. Remember that was fine for the likes of Lauda, Prost, Senna, Hakkinen – you know, the multiple world champions. One suspects they were rather more concerned with the task of winning races. Not for our Lewis though. He (and XIX Management) want it in his contract that he gets to keep the originals. Otherwise he won’t sign. And he’ll take his toys with him. Oh dear….
I genuinely think that XIX are trying to push him towards this multi-year $175m contract purportedly being offered by Mercedes. Why? Because it suits their purposes. His salary gets bumped up and he’s working with a huge global brand for them (and him) to exploit. He’ll become the celebrity he so craves by virtue of his fame. But what of his talent? Is that best served by joining a team that, despite vast resources, has only won a single race under it’s modern guise? Or is it best served by staying at a team that consistently provides, at the very least, a race winning car each season?
I think Hamilton is a man torn – his racing heart (if it still beats when he’s outside of a car) will realise at some level that his best chance of winning is with McLaren. However the XIX sitting on his shoulder waving dollar bills in his face and the promise of empty celebrity will be pushing him in the direction of Mercedes. The trouble is, right now, everywhere he turns within his current team he seems to be scorching, if not completely burning bridges. Fans of Hamilton have complained that the team seems to “prefer” Jenson Button right now. Well, you would. He gets his head down, works with his team of engineers and, with a lesser talent than Hamilton does his best, more maturely, for the team. Right now, the hassle of Lewis is outweighing his talent.
What would I do if I were Ron Dennis or Martin Whitmarsh at McLaren right now? I’d say thanks for the single championship Lewis, have fun at Mercedes, the door’s that way. I’d then breathe a huge sigh of relief and move mountains to sign Sergio Perez from under the noses of Ferrari. It’s a win/win – you get a hugely talented driver who works within the same set-up and style as Jenson Button. That then gives them a fantastic opportunity to design a car that maximizes a common driving style, whereas currently set-up and design compromise is needed as Lewis and Jenson are diametrically opposite on this front.
If I were Lewis, I’d make some sincere commitments (if not apologies) to the excellent team I have around me, resign with them minus the ridiculous trophy clause, get my head down and focus on what my talent brings. Should he do this I have every confidence that he will become the celebrity that he craves to be, but for the reasons he should be, as a superb, and multiple, World Formula One Champion.