It took six often frustrating and painful years, but once again Lewis Hamilton is the Formula One world champion, potentially elevating him toward the true elite both on and off the track. Hamilton claimed victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday to confirm triumph over Mercedes teammate and sole title rival Nico Rosberg in a hotly contested battle for the 2014 drivers’ crown. He is now one of 16 men to have won multiple world titles, and, still very much in his racing prime at the age of 29, few would bet against more following.
“Lewis can become one of the great drivers,” three-time world champion Jackie Stewart, now the only British driver to have won more titles than Hamilton, told BBC Sport. “There's a lot still to be done to achieve the greatness that I think everyone has perhaps placed on him prematurely. But he's a young man, so he has many more years in the sport, and I think we are going to see even greater things from him.”
After winning 11 races this year, Hamilton is now back on track for greatness; a status that appeared a forgone conclusion when he came within a whisker of winning the title in his rookie season as a 22-year-old and then a year later became the youngest champion in history. But the predicted domination was instead assumed by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who won four straight titles between 2010 and 2013, while also stripping Hamilton of the honor of youngest champion.
At the same time, Hamilton was attracting scrutiny for his off-track activities, including an on again, off again relationship with a pop star and a falling out with the figure who had for so long guided his career: his father, Anthony. Meanwhile, behind the wheel, his aggressive driving style earned accusations of recklessness. To many it was his tempestuous personality that led him to ending his 14-year association with traditional Formula One powerhouse McLaren and joining a Mercedes team that had shown sluggish speed since returning to the sport three years earlier. Instead, both he and the team have matured to become the class of the paddock.
There is clear reason for both to want their relationship to extend beyond the expiration of Hamilton’s existing contract at the end of 2015.
"That's naturally always the dream, to be able to go into next season and compete again and be as strong as possible," Hamilton said in an ESPN interview. "That's obviously going to be the goal and I have absolute faith in the team that we will come back very, very strong next year."
Just a couple of months ago, when Hamilton trailed Rosberg in the championship, reports circled that he would be offered reduced terms on the 60 million pounds ($94 million) three-year deal signed to lure him from McLaren in 2012. Now as world champion once again and having proven himself against his teammate, his bargaining position has been enhanced immensely. The widespread talk now is of a 100 million pounds ($157 million) five-year deal being agreed.
“We would love Lewis to stay in the team. He has been an incredible part in the development and rise of the team and we want to continue with both of them [Hamilton and Rosberg],” Mercedes Executive Director Toto Wolff told reporters in Abu Dhabi.
There will also surely be efforts from Hamilton’s camp to cash in on his status off the track. Aided by his natural charisma and, the grandson of Grenadian immigrants to Britain who has risen from a humble background to conquer the most glamorous of sports was named the most marketable athlete on the planet in 2014 by the United Kingdom’s SportsPro Magazine. Earlier this year he was ranked at the wealthiest sports person in Britain, with 68 million pounds ($107 million), by the Sunday Times’ Rich List.
“Lewis Hamilton’s second World Championship cements his position as a global sports superstar and makes him extremely attractive for sponsorship, advertising and other commercial endorsements,” Jim Wright, founder and CEO of Anglo Svenska Motorsports Marketing, said. “Lewis is highly marketable and his image and profile is bolstered by his celebrity girlfriend and circle of friends.”
Hamilton was ranked 19 in the list of the world’s top-earning athletes in 2014, according to Forbes, yet made just $3 million of his $32 million off the track. One consideration for Hamilton when making the move to Mercedes in the first place is widely thought to have been greater freedom over personal sponsorship deals. Still, Wright explains that the wealth of sponsors that Formula One teams covert naturally restrict the individual opportunities for drivers.
“Top racing drivers in F1 have very limited commercial rights as the teams prefer to sign contracts which provide the widest opportunity to the teams’ ability to sign commercial partners, and therefore they limit the drivers’ commercial rights. They would rather pay a higher salary to the driver to obtain those rights rather than having to deal with competition in the market place.”
Hamilton only recent split with XIX Entertainment, the management firm that counts David Beckham among its clients, a decision Wright believes reflects either Hamilton’s belief that they have been less than successful or that it is simply not worth the effort required to grow his endorsement portfolio. If more success is forthcoming on the track, though, then he will surely not have to look hard for sponsorship opportunities. His prospects look good, with Mercedes’ engine having proved in a league of its own after new regulations were introduced this season, and all three of their main rivals going into 2015 on the back of major upheaval.
The most successful team in the sport’s history, Ferrari, have just appointed their third different team principal of 2014 and have lost leading driver and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard is widely expected to move to Hamilton’s old team McLaren, yet they remain worryingly undecided about their driving lineup and will switch to Honda engines next year. Replacing Alonso at Ferrari is Vettel, who leaves Red Bull after their four-year domination of Formula One came to an end. Red Bull will now field a driver lineup with fewer than five seasons experience combined. It is no surprise that the odds makers have Hamilton as a hot favorite to retain his title next year and move level with the likes of greats Ayrton Senna and Niki Lauda on three titles, four behind the record of Michael Schumacher.