Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are in a committed, long-term relationship. Each brings out the best in the other, but Hamilton’s the celebrity part of the couple. So, every now and then there’s a flirtatious advance from someone trying to sneak in.
Sure, Hamilton’s thought about it. And things are not always rosy with Mercedes. Sometimes they need their space. They don’t text or call all the time, and they have their arguments.
“Falling out? Yeah,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admits. “But shouting match, no.”
“It’s only natural,” adds Hamilton. “We have disagreements. I don’t think we really had a bust-up or anything like that.
“We have disagreements but we talk it out. The thing is we’ve just always been very transparent with each other. Whether you like it or not. And I think that’s been why it’s as healthy as it is.”
Hamilton and Mercedes is a classic love story. Boy meets manufacturer, they develop a close and long-term relationship, sharing in each other’s many great successes, as well as some low moments that only make them stronger. Eventually, they take the plunge and commit to each other fully. From there blossoms greater trust, affection and happiness than ever before.
Cloying, isn’t it? But the analogy holds up. It’s why Hamilton can go so far as even acknowledging temptations from elsewhere. But would he ever actually leave?
“I think that’s kind of like a short-term thing,” Hamilton said of driving for Ferrari in a Sky F1 interview, filmed a couple of months ago and released this week.
“If you look at all drivers that have driven for Ferrari, obviously it is an incredible team, and the cars always beautiful, I’ve got red on my helmet, red is the colour of passion or love or whatever you want to say.
“(But) I’ve never seen (there) what Mercedes has done for all their drivers.
“Even Stirling Moss was still a part of the team. They honour that and you become a part of a legacy and a lifelong partner, which I think is super appealing.”
Hamilton acknowledges that this is likely to be his last proper F1 deal, his “last period of time in my sport”. As such, he wants to “maximise financially, but it’s more about results”
The revealing and engaging chat between Hamilton and his team boss Toto Wolff, mediated by Sky’s Martin Brundle, might have been quite old by the time it saw the light of day, but that doesn’t mean its contents have lost their relevance.
What Hamilton has built with Mercedes has the opportunity to be remembered as F1’s greatest partnership. Six world titles, five for the team, and counting. He’s arrowing in on Michael Schumacher’s records, which at one point seemed to destined to never be matched. With Hamilton’s help, Mercedes has already eclipsed Ferrari’s own records from the Schumacher era.
But Schumacher and Ferrari serve as proof that even the strongest and most successful relationships do not last forever. Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable for Schumacher to drive for another team, just like it is with Hamilton and Mercedes.
Except, after a short first retirement, Schumacher did end up driving for another team…Mercedes. And there are many people who would love to see Hamilton move in the opposite direction.
They will be disappointed to know that even perceived troubles in paradise aren’t what they seem.
“We had a discussion many years ago, where I said I have often disagreements with Susie (Toto’s wife), but I’m not in any way doubting the relationship, I don’t want a divorce,” Wolff says.
“And I think we need to get on this journey with this joint objective. I need Lewis, the team needs Lewis, and Lewis needs the team.
“That’s why you don’t need to discuss everything when emotions are high and everybody’s tense because then you’re irrational. And he may be irrational, and then it will trigger an irrational behaviour for me, which makes everything just worse.
“It’s important to respect the distance a little bit and to let things cool down. And then we would put the finger in the wound and say, ‘Well, this is how I saw it’ and the other side will say ‘No, I have a completely different perspective’.
“It takes a while until the waters calm down. But eventually, we know that we’re in this together. And for the benefit of all of us.”
The link that emerged between Ferrari and Hamilton late last year caused a major buzz that still flickers into life today. It will do so until Hamilton and Mercedes announce a new deal. Actually, it will probably continue after that.
But the business of Hamilton’s new contract, which still feels like a formality, infiltrates his relationship with Mercedes on a much lower level than people might think.
Hamilton is tied to the team until the end of 2020 but it seems some extraordinary circumstances are required for the relationship not to be extended. Neither side seems particularly bogged down by the details of finances, either.
He’s on an unknown salary, often speculated to be north of £40million a year including bonuses. When Sky’s interview was filmed, Daimler was already in the process of cutting jobs and Mercedes’ own involvement in F1 beyond 2020 appeared extremely likely but not set in stone.
“That’s usually kind of the easier phase of it,” Hamilton says of the money. “It’s the tiny details.
“People complain about or comment about the life that I live. I just work a lot. But when I joined the team, it opened up doors to be able to do things.
“I have the partnership with Tommy (Hilfiger), if we hadn’t had this earlier discussion, Tommy wouldn’t be a part of our team, I wouldn’t be able to do the great thing that I’m doing. And that’s a really important thing for me.”
Hamilton acknowledges that this is likely to be his last proper F1 deal, his “last period of time in my sport”. As such, he wants to “maximise financially, but it’s more about results”.
Hamilton doesn’t leave an agent to do the dirty work. His last contract was negotiated over a marathon chat in his Monaco apartment. “We ordered pizza,” Wolff remembers
“I know which contribution Lewis brings to the team as a driver and as a brand and you always need to respect that,” adds Wolff.
“A sportsperson has, in sports activity, a shelf life. And I totally acknowledge that as a racing driver, you can probably go on till you’re 40 and you’re at your peak.
“And then I have no doubt that with Lewis there will be another career, whatever that may be.
“That’s why I respect that there needs to be a financial component and that is important. This is about putting money to the side for the ventures in the future to come.
“On the same side, Lewis knows the limitations of the team and where we need to put the money and that Daimler is not an easy situation today.”
Since the interview, the world has changed dramatically. Daimler, other automotive manufacturers, and almost all businesses are under greater pressure than before because of the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis.
As these companies scramble to survive or balance their accounts, an F1 programme or a major salary or two can easily come under a glaring spotlight. So it’s hard to see how this will not change the outcome of Hamilton’s next deal.
But that doesn’t mean it will become a push factor that sees Hamilton eyeing up a new sweetheart. The nature of Hamilton’s relationship with Wolff means it is hardly ever ‘just business’, even when it comes down to business.
Hamilton doesn’t leave an agent to do the dirty work. His last contract was negotiated over a marathon chat in his Monaco apartment. “We ordered pizza,” Wolff remembers.
That personal touch is part of what has fostered such trust between the two. When Nico Rosberg left the team, retiring in the wake of his 2016 world title, Hamilton and Wolff cleared the air. The atmosphere inside Mercedes had toxified and this was a chance to rebuild.
Now, with renewed strength, their professional relationship is incredibly strong. Which helps when private conversations, which haven’t even started in earnest, are being speculated about so strongly.
“I texted Lewis I’m reading all these comments in the press about all negotiations, that Lewis is asking so much money,” Wolff says. “We have never talked about it. It’s all made up!”
“Communication really is so important, because we’re constantly both being interviewed,” says Hamilton.
“There’ll be times Toto’s interviewed, I don’t even know he’s been interviewed and vice versa.
“And sometimes months down the line, they’ll pick a single line or word and they’ll twist it. And then you’ll see something in the news.
“And you’ll be like, ‘hold on a second, Toto, how can you say that?’ and he’s like, ‘I didn’t say that!’.
“In the past, perhaps we would see something that will frustrate. And rather than saying something about it, you dwell on it for multiple days.
“Then we bump into each other and we’re like, ‘no, that’s actually not what’s happened. So we find that nowadays as soon as there’s a problem, we pick up the phone and sort it out straight away.”
Hamilton’s future is not the only part subject to speculation. Wolff looks like he’s staying put at Mercedes as well but has had his own rumours to contend with, enhanced by a personal investment in Aston Martin – which will have an F1 team next year when Racing Point (a Mercedes customer) rebrands.
There may be doubt for both sides but it would be a great surprise if Hamilton and Mercedes, led by Wolff, do not continue well beyond 2021. Affinity radiates from each party.
“Other managers have generally been quite narrow-minded in a lot of things,” says Hamilton.
“No one else would allow me to do, for example, the thing I do with Tommy which is not conflicting to any of the brands – if anything that’s helped elevate us.”
What Hamilton’s looking for is to maximise “the journey, the destination, and the other things that complement that”. He knows Mercedes is the perfect partner for that.
He and his team could remain silent on the matter for several months more, and it would fail to undermine the strength of a relationship that seems destined to resist all hurdles and stand the test of time.
Even if the odd lover’s quarrel is inevitable.