Mexican Sergio Perez is being lined up to replace Lewis Hamilton at McLaren as the British star’s contract negotiations reach crisis point.
Only a week after McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh admitted the team did not have a ‘Plan B’, it is understood contact has been made with Perez as Hamilton ponders a £60million offer from Mercedes.
McLaren’s approach to the 22-year-old Sauber driver is an indication the team are growing impatient with the negotiating strategy of Hamilton’s management, XIX Entertainment.
The agency is controlled by Simon Fuller, the man behind the Spice Girls, David Beckham, Andy Murray and creator of the Pop Idol TV franchise.
The move is the beginning of the end game. Hamilton may find his future is taken out of his own hands with the spectre of Perez being courted by McLaren, who do not want to be outmanoeuvred by the 27-year-old British driver.
A senior Formula One insider said: ‘Lewis Hamilton is playing with fire, and when you play with fire sometimes you get your fingers burned. He’d be crazy to leave McLaren. If he wants to know what happens when you leave a top team to chase money, he needs only to Google Jacques Villeneuve.’
Villeneuve’s story is a salutary lesson for all drivers, even one as brilliant as Hamilton. Having won the 1997 World Championship with Williams – a team with a rich, race-winning Grand Prix heritage – Villeneuve accepted a multi-million pound pay rise to drive for the fledgling BAR team pieced together by his manager Craig Pollock.
Villeneuve never won another race, BAR evolved into BAR Honda which, in turn, evolved into Brawn, then Mercedes; and the Canadian driver eventually left Formula One seven years later as a fallen star.
Fuller’s desire, in his first foray into Formula One’s political and notoriously ruthless world, is to create a contract for Hamilton that will allow him to develop his own brand beyond those of McLaren’s current sponsorship partners, numbering 30 in total. To McLaren chairman Ron Dennis this is anathema. His company, and the world titles won by men like Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and the late Ayrton Senna, has always been dependent on the income generated by commercial partners. They, in return, have access to McLaren’s drivers.
Hamilton is believed to be unsettled by the refusal of these demands and also by the salary offer on the table. The five-year deal negotiated by his father, Anthony, in 2007, was worth a total of £75m on a sliding scale, with this final year paying him about £18m. Sources close to XIX Entertainment claim Hamilton is being asked to take a pay cut to re-sign for McLaren, who groomed him from the age of 13.
This is flatly denied by McLaren. Informed speculation is that McLaren have proposed a deal close to £45m for a two-year contract, plus one-year option.
Mercedes have put an offer before XIX Entertainment that, with bonuses, could be worth £60m to Hamilton over the same three-year period from 2013.
They would also give XIX Entertainment the leeway to broaden Hamilton’s brand into new markets. Mercedes have another card to play: the team are directed by Englishman Ross Brawn, who won seven world championships with Michael Schumacher, five with Ferrari and two with Benetton, and another with Jenson Button, team-mate to Hamilton at McLaren.
Hamilton has won two of the last three races, and Button the other, as McLaren demonstrate they once again have the fastest car on the grid ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix next weekend.
Is it wise to abandon McLaren, with a record of winning one of every four grand prix races, to take a gamble on Mercedes?