Hamilton drives to a higher plane

Hamilton drives to a higher plane

Formula One: The Britons move from McLaren to Mercedes is expected to fetch him better returns financially

Former world champion Lewis Hamilton will get an even higher global profile and greater freedom to exploit it after joining the Mercedes Formula One motor racing team.

The Briton, 27, will leave McLaren and drive with Mercedes from next season in a three-year deal. He replaces German Michael Schumacher in a move that will make him a public face for one of the world's most famous car brands.

Hamilton is managed by the XIX Entertainment company that has helped to make former England soccer captain David Beckham, now playing for LA Galaxy, into a figure whose fame extends beyond his sport.

"Mercedes are a far bigger brand than McLaren globally," said Joel Seymour-Hyde of sports marketing agency Octagon. "The opportunities for him to have the Lewis Hamilton brand exposed and to become a figurehead for the company are that much greater," he added.

Hamilton, the first black driver to win a grand prix, features regularly in the gossip pages because of his relationship with US singer Nicole Scherzinger. His looks and image, clean cut yet moody, make him a natural for brands wishing to connect with a youthful audience.

World champion in 2008, Hamilton is one of Britain's best known sportsmen and ranked 24th on Forbes latest annual list of the world's highest paid athletes with earnings of $28 million.

However, Forbes estimates that only $3 million of that figure came from endorsements, compared with $10 million earned by Schumacher in that way. McLaren exercise tight control over drivers' commercial agreements to ensure they do not come into conflict with its major sponsors.

"With Mercedes, part of the deal will be giving him much more flexibility over the commercial deals he can do for himself," said Seymour-Hyde.

The risk for Hamilton is that Mercedes fail to deliver a car that compete at the top of the sport. Mercedes are in fifth place in the 12-team constructors' championship, while McLaren are second behind Red Bull.

An offer from McLaren which would have made Hamilton the best paid driver in Formula One was still not enough to prevent the Briton joining Mercedes. While no figures have been divulged by either party, British media reports have suggested the 2008 world champion could be in line for a salary of 15 million pounds ($24.29 million) a year at Mercedes.

Asked whether McLaren had done everything to convince the 27-year-old to stay, team boss Martin Whitmarsh indicated that money was not the main issue.
"We didn't agree terms with Lewis's management therefore Lewis and his management team have decided to go elsewhere," he said. 

"We have made a financial offer which is better than anyone in Formula One, other than himself, receives today, and that is something that I am comfortable with.  I know we made a very, very big financial offer, bigger than I believe any Formula One driver is enjoying today," he added.

Hamilton has been with McLaren, or backed by McLaren, throughout his career through the junior ranks and into Formula One in 2007 although Mercedes were also the team's partners and co-owners at that point. McLaren have not won a constructors' title since 1998 but have been regular challengers whereas Mercedes have just one win, in China this year, after taking over the title-winning Brawn GP team in 2009.

Asked whether he felt Hamilton was making a mistake, Whitmarsh replied: "I wouldn't advise anyone to leave McLaren if they want to win. But I've got to respect Lewis's decision and really wish him well."

Mclaren, whose cars are powered by engines supplied by Mercedes, have replaced Hamilton with Mexican driver Sergio Perez, who is only 22.

Perez will drive alongside Briton Jenson Button, another former world champion, for McLaren next season. The recruitment of Perez is seen as a shrewd piece of business by McLaren, a team based in southern England who have branched out into technologies associated with motor sport.

"If Perez is competitive, it opens up a lot of opportunities," said Danny Townsend of sports brand analysis company Repucom. "Mexico is a big market and for McLaren to be able to leverage that is a huge opportunity," he added.

Vodafone are the title sponsor for the McLaren team under an agreement that runs until the end of next season. The mobile phone company does not have operations in Mexico. Perez has been backed throughout his career by Carlos Slim Domit, eldest son of the world's richest man and head of telecoms giant Telefonos de Mexico (Telmex).

McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh said there were no side deals associated with the signing of Perez.  "I'm not saying that ultimately there may not be other fresh partners coming forward because of it but that wasn't the motivating force," he said.
"We've got a tremendously strong partner line-up of investors, that's solid and we are confident and comfortable with that," he added.