Lewis Hamilton will walk out on McLaren, the Formula One team who have nurtured his extraordinary talent for more than half of his lifetime, and sign for Mercedes, the German car giant is expected to announce later on Friday.
Contrary to widespread speculation that the 27-year-old Hamilton was about to re-sign for McLaren, the team he joined as a 13-year-old and with whom he won the world championship in 2008, the fastest and most gifted driver of his generation has decided to join Mercedes, despite the fact that they have won only one championship race this season and languish in mid-table in the constructors' title race.
Mercedes are expected to announce that seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher will quit the team at the end of the season in November, making room for Hamilton's sensational switch, a move that will reverberate through the Formula One paddock for the remainder of this season.
Hamilton will sign for Mercedes on a three-year deal worth £15m a year. The irony of that is that it is not significantly more than Hamilton is being paid at the moment. He is coming to the end of a five-year deal that has been repeatedly reported as being worth £75m, or £15m a year, but which in fact is worth about £13m-£14m per annum.
McLaren, who have been caught out by Mercedes from the start and described the original story linking their star driver with their opponents as "fantasy" earlier this month, felt confident that Hamilton would renew his contract as the team left Singapore on Monday following the latest grand prix.
Hamilton, it seems, never really wanted to leave McLaren but after being offered a mere two-thirds of his original pay packet – and, it is alleged, asked to increase an already heavy load of sponsorship commitments, he has changed his mind. It is a huge gamble for the driver.
McLaren, who have won five races this season and have had the fastest car for the last four races, on very different circuits, have won 180 races – second only to Ferrari, who have been competing for longer – and have topped the podium in one of ever four races in which they have competed.
Mercedes, as a works team, are expected to be more competitive when major regulation changes are introduced in 2014. But there is no guarantee of that.
But it is, perhaps, an even bigger gamble for McLaren to lose the biggest box office attraction in the sport. Even if they succeed in signing Sergio Pérez – the favourite for the vacant seat – or one of the Force India pair of Nico Hülkenberg or Paul Di Resta – Hamilton is simply irreplaceable. And sponsors may come to the same conclusion.
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image: © McLaren