All platitudes aside, Formula 1 is a tough business. There’s no doubt that Mercedes has been elated with the performance of Lewis Hamilton and there’s little doubt that Lewis has enjoyed the most dominant car F1 has ever seen as he cruised to his 7th world title. It has been a marriage of one very talented driver with one very dominant car and the result has been a 7-year honeymoon.
But those days are behind Mercedes now and as they face the stark reality of the 2021 season with all of its unknowns, they do so with a signed 1-year deal for Valtteri Bottas and little else as Lewis Hamilton is holding out for the mother of all contracts that would include a post-retirement job with Mercedes doing equity or sustainability work of some kind.
The Sakhir Grand Prix is just one race but that one race was indicative of the kind of performance we’ve seen for most of the year from Bottas. While many are quick to blame bad luck, I tend to think we’ve seen everything we’re going to see from Valtteri and I advocated bringing George Russell up to the team in 2020 instead of Valtteri as this would have allowed two years, at least, as an understudy to Hamilton. Now I am even more convinced of that move for 2021. In fact, not to do so would be working against the team’s better interest.
George Russell did many thing last weekend. He reminded Mercedes why he was their junior driver. He suggested that, unlike Bottas, he could start the race, gap the field and managed that gap and his tires to victory. Very much what Hamilton is known for these days. He suggested that in the end, perhaps a mega contract for Lewis on a long-term basis wasn’t the only option the team had for the future.
Many suggest that Max Verstappen is eyeing Mercedes and they him. That may or may not be true but the reality is, I wouldn’t resign Hamilton at this point if I ran Mercedes.
Now I know that’s just plain stupidity but to be honest, we have one more season with these current regulations…nothing changes next year. Given the long-term goal of the team, signing a massive $140 million dollar deal giving Lewis the keys to a Mercedes AMG black label, making him king of the Mercedes brand, setting him up with a multi-million dollar post-racing role is not the best use of the companies resources.
In a time of COVID and austerity, paying Lewis millions and millions of dollars so he can win his 8th title and then be a Mercedes equity and sustainability ambassador doesn’t make a lot of fiscal sense to me given the struggles the company is going through as well as the world.
Lewis’s 8th title is a personal achievement, Mercedes has nothing to prove having won 7 titles on the trot but what they do have to do is think about the future, the regulation changes in 2021 and who will lead that team into the new era.
There was a time that I couldn’t understand how Ferrari could show Michael Schumacher the door. In the end, I came to understand that move. If I were Mercedes, I would offer a modest 1-year deal to Lewis and if he didn’t take it, I would move George in for 2021.
Now I know you’re thinking this is complete stupidity as Red Bull, Ferrari or Renault would snatch Lewis up in a heartbeat. I think Red Bull would pass as a Max and Lewis ticket would be a crime scene.
Consider that no matter where Lewis might go in 2021, the cars aren’t changing and he wouldn’t have the ride to compete with Mercedes. The team hold the cards in this negotiation and George simply reminded them of that last weekend.
Having George and Valtteri in 2021 and then George and possibly Max in 2022 would be a daunting lineup. If they couldn’t get Max, then another rising star like Leclerc, Norris or even a Ricciardo or Perez. There are several options.
What George did last weekend showed that while no one is suggesting he is on par with Lewis, he can deliver Lewis-like performances in his car. Not even Lewis could have avoided the clown show pit stop and a slow puncture. George had that race won and did so by managing a gap to Bottas just like Lewis usually does.
George isn’t Lewis (very few are), he’s George and if I ran Mercedes, I would close the chapter on a too-expensive Lewis and open a new book on a very affordable George and the long-term vision for the team. I would be more concerned about the 2022 changes and the drivers I had poised to lead that new era than getting Lewis $140M corporate job and an 8th title. You might say the team owe it to Lewis, no, they don’t. They paid him millions for the seven years he performed like the champ he is.
As the Schumacher-Ferrari divorce shows, there comes a time when all good things end and you have to look forward. Being good stewards of the resources this team and Mercedes have is paramount in times such as these. George represents the best chance to do so without losing a lot of skills and competitiveness for the future.