There are again stories kicking around about Lewis Hamilton moving from McLaren to Red Bull Racing. This would seem to be a logical step for him given that Red Bull has won the last two World Championships with Sebastian Vettel. McLaren has had some tough years as a result, but the team remains consistently competitive, even if it has not given Hamilton much chance of the title in recent seasons.
Lewis’s contract is for five years and covers the period 2008 to 2012. It ends this year. It will have paid him around $140 million by the time it finishes, which means that he is very well paid, although the question of money is not that important to him beyond being an indication of his value in F1 terms. This means that Lewis is probably earning around $40m this year, as the deal was based on an annual increase.
Red Bull is believed to have a strategy that pays a low-ish retainer, which ramps up over time, but which also rewards drivers for their victories, which means that Vettel’s 11 wins in 2011 may have allowed Sebastian to double his money to around $22 million. His current deal with Red Bull is expected to mean a salary of $13.8 million in 2013 and $16.5 million in 2014, with bonuses added on top of this.
Star drivers have in the past been known to sign for smaller salaries in order to get into winning cars, but it might be wiser for Lewis to stay where he is and hope that McLaren will give him a winning car. Hamilton may, however, also feel that it would do him good to be elsewhere as he has spent his entire career at McLaren and he may feel the need to prove himself elsewhere as well.
A move from McLaren to Red Bull Racing would suit the Formula One group, as well, as it would put Vettel up against Hamilton, which would create a better show. This works unless Red Bull has a bad year in which case two of the top drivers are struggling, which would open the way for someone else to step into the breach. While this might create a new star for the sport, it is probably wisest for Bernie Ecclestone not to put all his eggs in one basket and keep the top talent spread around the top teams.
The key player in Hamilton moving to Red Bull is, however, Red Bull itself. Red Bull would gain more exposure from such a driver line-up, but this would come at a price. It would risk disrupting the team, which sails happily along at the moment with one clear team leader. Employing two number ones is a dangerous which McLaren has seen cause trouble on several occasions, notably in 2007 when Fernando Alonso and Hamilton fell out in spectacular fashion, leading to all kinds of trouble. Thus there is an element of risk involved for Red Bull. It would also negate the value of the Red Bull Young Driver programme, which has been designed to bringing on new (cheap) talent, rather than having to buy in big names. If Vettel is winning, and a second driver can win when Sebastian cannot, what is the logic of “rocking the boat”. From Red Bull’s point of view it might be better to have Hamilton at McLaren, where Jenson Button keeps him under pressure. What is clear is that Hamilton is not going to be going to Ferrari any time soon, as long as Alonso has his feet under the desk there.
The question is really about what Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz wants out of his F1 investment. The sport has served him well in recent years (although he has paid through the nose to get that success). Red Bull has global profile which is greatly enhanced thanks to the sport. It will continue to deliver benefits in the developing markets, although it should be noted that Mateschitz does not control Red Bull in Asia, where his partners in the business run operations. For them, the best thing would be an Asian F1 star – preferably a Thai. One can see that this is on the agenda given the company’s support of youngster Alexander Albon, an Anglo-Thai who this year moves from karts, where he battled for the KF1 World Championship with Holland’s Nick de Vries (a McLaren youngster), into car racing – in Formula Renault. In a perfect world (for them) Albon will zip through Formula Renault, Formula 3 and GP2 and be ready for F1 about the time that Vettel gets to be 30 and starts to slow down. In the interim the aim seems to be to promote whichever of this year’s Scuderia Toro Rosso drivers shows best, as a replacement for Mark Webber. Jean-Eric Vergne is tipped by some as the favourite. Webber will either retire or go to Ferrari, where he would be a good team-mate for Fernando Alonso, if Felipe Massa does not shape up this year. The problem that Mateschitz has is that the law of diminishing returns means that the impact of more Vettel-Red Bull titles will lower interest (and thus brand awareness) in F1, just as Sebastien Loeb’s apparently endless domination of the World Rally Championship has hurt that sport; and Michael Schumacher’s dominant phase at Ferrari (in its heyday 10 years ago) did not help F1.