ALTERNATIVE HISTORIES: What if Hamilton hadn’t joined Mercedes?
Sport is full of ‘what if?’ moments – and Formula 1 is no different. What if a driver hadn’t made that split-second decision behind the steering wheel? What if a team boss hadn’t gone against his instincts and signed that driver? As F1 celebrates its 70th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the moments and decisions that had huge ramifications for the sport and those who participate in it, starting with a sliding doors moment for Lewis Hamilton…
What actually happened
It began with two laboured press conferences at Suzuka on October 4, 2012. In the first, Michael Schumacher explained, for the second time in his career, why he was retiring. This was the courtesy part of Lewis Hamilton’s shock decision to switch from McLaren to replace him at Mercedes, the Silver Arrows letting Michael have his say first.
Then Lewis deadpanned his way through a tortuous press conference in which he studiously avoided making further comment on his forthcoming move.
In the paddock, and in print, there was no shortage of sage journalists prepared to commit to their belief that in leaving McLaren for Mercedes, the 2008 world champion was committing career suicide. I was one of them, and boy, has he never let any of us forget that! Rightly so…
Of course, with that greatest of all wisdoms – hindsight – we can all look back and laugh. After all, five world championships and another 63 victories are tungsten-solid proof that he was right to yield to Niki Lauda’s blandishments to up sticks and join the team that went on to dominate the era of the turbo-hybrid F1 car. But for an engine failure in Malaysia in 2016, Lewis would have won all six titles.
The ‘sliding doors’ moment
McLaren wanted to keep Lewis – of that there is no doubt. Chairman Ron Dennis even famously said: “If things pan out the way I expect them to, I'm pretty sure he will be sat in a McLaren next year.” And if you looked at what was happening at McLaren back in 2012, and compared what Mercedes had achieved since 2010, it surely seemed a slam dunk Lewis would stay put.
In that three-year period, McLaren won 18 races to Mercedes’ 1.
But this wasn’t a situation entirely about current performance or claims of future performance. Lewis wanted the personal freedom he needs to perform at his best, which is part of the reason he left. And the bald statistics say that he was absolutely right to leave McLaren...
The alternative reality
But what if Lewis had stayed at McLaren, and not joined the Silver Arrows? What if he had continued to keep the faith, having first approached Ron Dennis when he was a 10-year-old kid doing pretty well in karting?
Lauda had clearly decided that Michael was past his best, hence going after Lewis for Mercedes in the first place. And with three titles already won with Red Bull, would Sebastian Vettel have been bold – rash – enough to gamble on walking away from such success to join Mercedes in his hero's stead, given the team’s poor performances up to 2012?
It’s much more likely that the pragmatic Niki would have switched his sights to Fernando Alonso, who by the end of 2012 must have been despairing of Ferrari ever delivering him a world championship. At that stage Fernando had bagged 30 victories – nine more than Lewis had in his pre-Mercedes years – and two titles.
Were he to have mirrored what Lewis subsequently achieved with Mercedes – five titles and 63 race victories (and who is to say that he might not have done better still?) – the Spaniard would now have seven titles and 93 victories and be the statistical king of the castle. Now there’s a thought…
Mercedes began to turn the tide in 2013, while McLaren fell over the cliff at exactly the same time. That season Nico Rosberg won two races, Lewis one, the Briton starting from pole five times and the German thrice.
McLaren, by contrast, had a disastrous year and fell into the slump from which they are only just recovering. They haven’t looked like winning again since 2012. Given that Jenson had scored eight of their 18 victories in the previous years when paired with Lewis, it’s fair to judge that the pair were pretty evenly matched.
Thus the fact that Jenson’s best score in 2013 was a paltry fourth place in Brazil is a damning indication of just how far the Woking team had fallen, and how much Lewis would also have struggled in a McLaren. Even though he could get more out of a bad car than Jenson could, he would definitely not have been the title fight that year, and it’s not inconceivable that he would have been looking for a move elsewhere by the end of it.
But Mercedes’ door would probably have been closed. In our alternative reality Alonso would already have been there, and would they have risked dropping Nico to take Lewis, after the aggro between the Spaniard and the rookie Brit at McLaren in 2007? It’s unlikely. So where else could he have gone?
Let’s assume that Seb would have had enough clout at Red Bull to keep the door shut there; that would leave only Ferrari of the top tier teams with space. What if Lewis had gone there alongside, say, Daniel Ricciardo for 2014? That would have opened up a whole new universe, because Seb would likely have had to stay at Red Bull and not gone to Ferrari for 2015, and may later have had to accept Max Verstappen as his team mate. Seb and Max… That pairing – and the inevitable fireworks – would have made his moments with Charles Leclerc at Ferrari last year look like squabbles in a nursery…
No question, Ferrari would not have delivered Lewis the string of titles and wins that followed at Mercedes in real life. Possibly, they would have fallen to Nico, who might now still be unretired – but with only one win in his career up to that turning point at the end of 2012, he’d still be a long way off Schumacher’s record of 91 victories.
And if he couldn’t beat Lewis regularly and gave up under the strain after winning his championship in 2016, it’s unlikely he would have done any better against Fernando.
But might Lewis have turned 2018 and 2019 into Ferrari titles? He doesn’t tend to make the mistakes that Seb does, and both those cars were quick enough to be championship winners. If he had, it would have left Alonso with, say, five titles and hungry for more, Lewis with three not six – and set up a very different Mercedes versus Ferrari fight in 2020…