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Mercedes move may be the making of Lewis Hamilton’s legacy

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

On Friday (28th September), it was announced that McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton has signed a three year deal with the Mercedes Formula One team, effective as of the start of the 2013 season and if he can put the team on top of the pile, he will secure his place as one of the sport’s all-time greats.

The decision came as a surprise to many observers outside the world of motorsport, but there has speculation amongst those in the know for some time now about a possible move to the Silver Arrows for the 27 year old. His decision signals the end of a 14 year association with Woking-based McLaren and many within the Formula One world have criticised his choice to leave. At the front of the critics queue is McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who responded to the news by saying ‘I wouldn’t advise anyone to leave McLaren if they want to win.’

On the face of it, it is difficult to disagree with those who question Hamilton’s judgment. Since the German luxury car manufacturer bought out Brawn GP after the 2009 season, its team has managed only one race win (Nico Rosberg, Malaysia 2012) and delivered only four podium finishes. This pales in comparison to the achievements of McLaren in that time. Hamilton alone has won nine races and finished on either the second or third step of the podium a further 12 times, while teammate Jenson Button has managed seven wins and 17 podiums. Furthermore, McLaren have finished second in the Constructors’ Championship for the last three years, while Mercedes have been a distant fourth. All of this suggests that Hamilton is taking a backwards step and make no mistake, as things stand, he is. So why move?

Hamilton’s decision to leave a successful McLaren team is a gamble (This image is the property of the Daily Telegraph)

Rumours have abounded for a while now that Hamilton is ruffling too many feathers at McLaren. The Englishman has had his fair share of bad luck this year with mechanical faults and pit stop errors, but the team’s management have not been impressed with his vocal and public criticism of them. When Hamilton tweeted telemetry data at this season’s Belgian Grand Prix making it accessible to millions, Martin Whitmarsh dismissed it publically as a small error of judgement. Behind close doors, you can bet he was fuming. Hamilton has increasingly garnered a reputation as an attention seeker, particularly when compared to the amiable and relaxed Button, and it has been evident for some time that McLaren are growing tired of his antics. A divorce may be the best solution to a love affair that has soured.

 

Sports fans often like to think that money is not a key factor in the decision making process for men of Hamilton’s vast wealth, but it in fact plays a huge role. Hamilton’s decision to jump ship and join a less successful team is no exception in this regard. Ross Brawn himself stated that the first move was made by Hamilton’s camp and with the riches on offer at Mercedes, this should come as no surprise. It is no secret that McLaren have been looking to offer Hamilton a contract on reduced terms as they need to make economies and weight has been added to this by the signing of Sergio Perez (who is essentially bankrolled by the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helú) as Hamilton’s replacement. According to the Daily Telegraph, Hamilton will earn £20 million a year at Mercedes, compared to the £15 million he is currently paid at McLaren, and the scope for income from commercial activities is also much greater in the silver and green of Mercedes. McLaren are notorious for controlling the image rights of their drivers, something with which Hamilton’s representatives have never been happy. At Mercedes however, the 2008 world champion will be free to sign whatever sponsorship deals he wants, significantly boosting his earning potential, while the global profile and appeal of the Mercedes brand will open many new doors in terms of sponsors, allowing Hamilton to profit from the same sort of car-related kudos that benefits Fernando Alonso at Ferrari.While money is a key consideration, it is not however, the overriding factor. Hamilton sees himself as the best driver on the current Formula One grid and for a man of his talents, one world championship is an underachievement. At 27, he is no longer a youngster and having realised this, he has acted to change things.

As things stand, McLaren offers the better chance of delivering a world title, but Ross Brawn and his team at Mercedes appear to have convinced Hamilton that they are the better bet in the long term. As mentioned earlier, McLaren have announced cost-saving measures and some of this is ironically linked to Mercedes. The contract which sees McLaren receive free engines from the German manufacturer expires at the end of the current season, meaning that they will have to spend a great deal of money that they have previously not had to find. With what is said to be the biggest budget in Formula One at an estimated £185 million a year, Ross Brawn’s team has no such problems and can afford to build a car around Hamilton, who will be the team’s undisputed number one.

It is unclear what McLaren are going to do in terms of engine provision, with some claiming they will simply become a Mercedes customer and others stating that they are going to build their own. Whatever the case, it would seem they have been unable to convince Hamilton that it is a project worth buying in to.

Brawn himself is a selling point as team principal, who would not want to drive for a man who has helped mastermind eight Drivers’ and eight Constructors’ Championships? Brawn built a dynasty with Michael Schumacher at Ferrari that saw the German clinch five consecutive world titles on his way to becoming the man who many see as the greatest Formula One driver of all time. Hamilton, it would seem, has been convinced that Brawn can do the same at Mercedes. It is a big gamble, but if he can succeed where the great German failed and establish Mercedes as the leading team in the sport for years to come, he will cement his own place as an all-time great.

Categories: Motorsport

R.I.P Marco Simoncelli

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment

The world of motorsport is in mourning for a second consecutive weekend following the tragic death of Italian Moto GP rider Marco Simoncelli in Malaysia today. The 24 year old died just four minutes in to the race in Sepang when he came off his bike and skidded in to the path of Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi, who were unable to avoid him. The impact of the two bikes hitting Simoncelli caused injuries from which he was unable to recover, despite the best efforts of the medical team and around 45 minutes later, the tragic news of his death was announced.

 

Marco Simoncelli was one of Moto GP's most colourful characters (This image is the property of Reuters)

The incident occurred at turn 11 on only the second lap of the race as the Gresini Honda rider ran wide and tried to maintain control of the bike. He was unable to do so and the front end of the bike went from underneath him. It must be said that this is a highly common occurrence in Moto GP (four riders did the same thing last week) and does not normally cause any issues as the bike slides away from the rider. However, on this occasion the bike took Simoncelli with it and in to the path of two oncoming riders. Colin Edwards careered in to the stricken Italian at great speed before being catapulted out of the saddle himself (Edwards suffered a dislocated shoulder in the incident) and then the impact of Valentino Rossi’s Ducati appeared to be what removed Simoncelli’s helmet. The red flag was immediately waved and medical staff were on the scene very quickly to tend to the Italian, who lay there motionless. The race was eventually cancelled once the seriousness of Simoncelli’s condition was known. Around 45 minutes later, at 16.56 local time, it was announced that they had been unable to save him.

In a hastily arranged and highly emotional press conference, Medical Director Michele Macchiagodena explained what had happened: “He suffered a very serious trauma to the head, to the neck and the chest. When our medical staff got to him he was unconscious. In the ambulance because there was a cardiac arrest they started CPR (cardiac pulmonary resuscitation). Immediately in the Medical Centre, with the help of the doctor of our staff at the Clinica Mobile and local doctors, he was incubated and it was possible to take off some blood from the thorax. The CPR was continued for 45 minutes because we tried to help him for as long as we thought it was possible. Unfortunately it was not possible to help him and at 16:56 (local time) we had to declare he was dead.”

Questions will inevitably be asked about the safety of the sport, although it should be noted that this is the first death in the Moto GP class since 2003. Paul Butler (Race Director) stated that “Quite clearly the consequences and circumstances surrounding the accident will be thoroughly investigated.” Perhaps most worrying is the way Simoncelli ended up without a helmet and there will no doubt be questions raised about the design of such head protection. All of this is however for another time and for now; everybody’s thoughts and prayers are with Marco Simoncelli’s friends and family. We should also reflect on just what a huge talent and colourful character the sport has lost.

This was only Simoncelli’s second year in Moto GP following a successful career on smaller bikes, and he certainly made an impact. After entering the sport’s top tier, he quickly garnered a reputation for risky, swashbuckling driving which was exciting but also the subject of much criticism. The Italian’s aggressive riding style led to altercations with the likes of compatriot Andrea Dovizioso and Spain’s Dani Pedrosa. In fact, a crash with Pedrosa at this year’s French Grand Prix saw the Spaniard miss three races with a broken collarbone and Simoncelli serve a drive through penalty. Following the incident, the 24 year old admitted “in the future I will try at certain times to evaluate the situation better and be a little more cautious.”

 

The Italian's maverick riding style won him fans and critics alike (This image is the property of Moto GP)

Despite the criticism, Simoncelli’s talent was undeniable. He showed an ability to eke every last mph out of a non-factory bike and his capacity for overtaking was already becoming legendary. Two podiums this season, including a second place finish last week in Australia, had helped Simoncelli seal a deal to ride for Honda’s factory team next year and he was seemingly on his way to becoming the sport’s next big star before tragedy struck in Malaysia.

The Italian was brave on the track and much loved off it. He simply loved the thrill of riding at speed on his bike and his flamboyance in and out of the saddle won him the adoration of many fans. Several experts, including the BBC’s Steve Parrish, were tipping him to be a serious title contender on the Honda next year. Simoncelli was delighted at being offered a ride on the best bike on the grid, but the sight of a highly talented, highly exciting Italian on the machine is one of which we have been robbed.

There are rumours that Valentino Rossi, a close friend of his countryman, will retire following this weekend’s crash as he is said to be devastated and it was evident that the tragedy had caused much introspection amongst the other riders. The accident has rocked the sport to its core and it will take a long time for it to return to something like normality, but in the meantime let’s remember a young man who just loved riding a motorcycle and who provided us with fantastic entertainment both on and off the track. Thank you for the memories Marco, you will be sorely missed. R.I.P.

The Reactions of fellow Moto GP Riders

Casey Stoner (Honda): “As soon as I saw the footage it just makes you sick inside. Whenever the helmet comes off that’s not a good sign. I’m so shocked and saddened by the loss of Marco. When things like this happen it reminds you how precious life is, it makes me feel sick inside. All I can say is how sorry I am for Marco’s whole family. I can’t imagine what they are all going through and our thoughts and wishes are with them at this time. I hope they all stay close and pull through this tragedy together.”

Andrea Dovizioso (Honda): “He seemed invincible. What happened seems impossible. We raced together since we were kids. I saw him always pushing to the maximum. He crashed many times but without major injuries. In these circumstances, words don’t seem to be appropriate. I think of Marco’s family and all the people dear to him, in particular his father and mother. I also have a child and what happened today is the hardest situation you can imagine. I watched the images and I’m shocked. In a race you fight and push hard and disaster is often around the corner. Marco was a strong rider and he always pushed hard.”

Dani Pedrosa (Honda): “Many times we ourselves forget how dangerous this sport can be and, when you lose people on the way, nothing has any meaning. It’s clear we all do what we like, what we love, but on days like today nothing matters.”

Cal Crutchlow (Yamaha Tech 3): “RIP Marco Simoncelli! A great rider and all round nice guy. My thoughts are with all his family & friends. I will never forget today.” (From Twitter)

Categories: Motorsport

Casey Stoner Seals Moto GP World Championship on dramatic weekend at Phillip Island

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Casey Stoner today (16th October) won his second Moto GP world title, in his home Grand Prix, on his birthday. A fairytale ending some might say, but unfortunately it did not come in the manner that the new world champion had hoped for as a crazy race day brought a dramatic weekend of racing action to a close.

Heading in to this weekend’s round at the legendary Phillip Island circuit, many felt that the Repsol Honda rider and proud ‘Aussie’ had a slim chance of sealing a championship that was within touching distance. In order to end his four year wait for a second title, Stoner needed to score at least 10 points more than his nearest rival and defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo. However, the Spaniard’s consistency in finishing on the podium this season meant that most experts and fans expected the championship to go, at least, to Sepang next Sunday (23rd October). In fact Stoner himself rated his chances of finishing the job on home soil as ‘very slim.’

That Stoner won the race is no great surprise. He loves the Phillip Island circuit and has now won five years in a row and at no point this weekend did that streak look like coming to an end. Despite crashing in the first practice session on Friday, he recorded the fastest time of the day with a 1:30.535. He was imperious during Saturday’s qualifying, securing pole as the only rider to go sub 1:30 and looked odds on to win yet another race. He did of course complete a superb weekend, winning at a canter, but the real shock is what happened to those behind him on the grid.

Casey Stoner in full flow on his way to becoming World Champion (This image is the property of AP)

Yamaha’s Ben Spies crashed out at 150 mph during the second qualifying session on Saturday and sustained severe bruising and a suspected cracked rib. He was still expected to line up on the grid but complained of a fuzzy head on the morning of the race and stated that he was unable to concentrate during the warm-up laps. Yamaha decided that it was too dangerous to send the American out and one of their riders was out of the race.

Then came the big news of the day and it was news that changed the whole complexion of the world championship race. On the last corner of the last lap of the warm-up, Jorge Lorenzo’s bike took on the role of bucking bronco and despite the best efforts of the Spaniard to keep it under control, the Yamaha YZR-M1 catapulted him from the saddle. Lorenzo walked away seemingly unscathed but appeared to be examining his left hand with great concern. His hand became trapped under the bike when it threw him off and we have since learned that he lost the tip of his ring finger in the incident. Thankfully he underwent successful surgery in Melbourne and according to a Yamaha team statement released today ‘no functionality will be lost in either the finger or the hand.’ He will, however, miss the race in Malaysia next weekend.

Lorenzo’s misfortune meant that Stoner only had to finish in the top six to become world champion, but as has been the case all season, the Australian showed the rest how it is done, but not before he showed that he is also a top class act out of the saddle. Upon hearing that Lorenzo had been taken to hospital, Stoner’s immediate reaction was to do the human thing and enquire as to the welfare of his great rival. He then expressed his disappointment at not being able to try to win the championship from the incumbent directly. How many sportsmen would have acted in such a dignified manner?

Back to the track and the unpredictable elements put paid to the hopes of the great Valentino Rossi, who passed Alvaro Bautista at speed but was unable to stop the bike quickly enough on surface water and crashed out. They also saw the end of Bautista himself who also slid out. Cal Crutchlow and Hiroshi Aoyama were also victims, and Karel Abraham’s nightmare weekend ended in fitting fashion, in the gravel trap. Andrea Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli thrilled the crowd with a close run battle for second which involved several overtakes and numerous close shaves.

Whilst all of this carnage was taking place, one man was forgotten by the TV cameras, the man who can now deservedly call himself the best in the world. Stoner serenely rode, unopposed and unstoppably, to the world title which has, in truth, had his name on it for some time. In commentary, Stoner’s excitable countryman Charlie Cox referred to him as a ‘magician on a motorbike,’ and based on what we have seen this year, it is impossible to disagree. The statistics speak for themselves. Nine wins, six podiums and 11 poles from 16 races are championship form by any measure and in many ways, what happened in Australia was something of a microcosm for the season as a whole.

The Australian celebrates the perfect birthday present (This image is the property of Andrew Brownhill)

Jorge Lorenzo has been very good this season, but has made several costly mistakes. He crashed out at Silverstone in Round Six and never looked comfortable in the final sector this weekend, the sector in which he crashed out.  The man widely considered the best rider in the history of the sport, Valentino Rossi, has struggled on a less than stellar Ducati, crashing out in the last two races. Stoner’s teammate Dani Pedrosa has been solid but has paid the price for missing three races as a result of his crash in France earlier in the season and Marco Simoncelli has simply suffered too many DNFs (four).

Stoner has not made such errors. In fact, only once, at Jerez where he did not finish, has Stoner failed to get on the podium. He has simply been head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Many have unfairly put this down to the superiority of the Honda Honda RC212V, which has usurped the Yamaha as the best bike on the grid. Whilst there is some truth in the claims that the Honda has been better than every other bike, the pace Stoner has been able to eke out of the machine has been phenomenal. He has left everybody in his wake, and let us not forget that this is his first season on the Honda having switched from Ducati at the end of the last season. Stoner has shown signs of frustration at the lack of appreciation he has received in the past and one has to have some sympathy for him. He is a bona fide two-time world champion in an elite sport and may even go on to emulate, or perhaps even better, the record of fellow ‘Aussie’ and former Repsol Honda star Mick Doohan, who won five world titles between 1994 and 1998.

Today is not, however, a day for Stoner to dwell on the lack of credit he gets or what the future may hold. It is instead a day for revelling in his fantastic achievement and enjoying his birthday with his nearest and dearest. The world title is the best present he could have asked for and may even make up for the fact that his father did not buy him anything for his 26th birthday!

Congratulations Casey Stoner, a deserved 2011 Moto GP World Champion.

Categories: Motorsport