A new three-year deal said to be worth £120m is the prize reportedly dangled before Lewis Hamilton by Mercedes in Abu Dhabi this weekend. The arrangement would give him economic parity with Sebastian Vettel, Formula One’s other four-time world champion presently leading the Ferrari challenge in the sport’s binary battle for hegemony.
Hamilton is long past the point where sums such as these make a material difference to his life, though we have seen with the light cast on his tax affairs by the Paradise Papers, that even for the super-rich, holding onto as much of the wedge as is legally possible remains a feature of the accounting landscape.
Hamilton was duly hammered over the fiscal shimmy executed in the Isle of Man to recover a few mil in VAT on the purchase of a private plane. What was surprising about that episode was the eagerness with which the haters went after their target, the indignation over the action secondary in some way to the disdain for the man himself.
There will be a lot of high-earning celebs from the world of entertainment and sport twitching uncomfortably at the prospect of a like exposure. Hamilton’s accountants are not acting in a vacuum. They are playing the system like everybody else.
This is not to defend the moves of a wealthy individual to lessen his tax burden, simply to acknowledge that Hamilton is not the only high-earner taking advantage of tax breaks in Monaco, Switzerland, Florida, the Bahamas, the Isle of Man or any other haven that allows registered parties a hefty tax break.
Michael Schumacher did not move to Switzerland for his love of the mountains. Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods et al are not resident in Florida for the view. There isn’t one. They are domiciled where the tax arrangements make the living easy. Yet Hamilton is the one harangued by the morality police, which begs the question why the distrust, the dislike?
My own view takes us back to the clumsy attempts by the McLaren comms machine, under the influence of former owner Ron Dennis, to package Hamilton as a sponsor-friendly totem back in his debut season of 2007. Dennis ended up making Hamilton colourless, his personality and spirit bleached by the corporate canvas. This was fine during the grand unveiling in Valencia, where Hamilton, grateful to be in a race seat at last, was acquiescent and soundbite primed, but quickly began to unravel once the visceral business of racing began.
By the third race in Bahrain, Dennis was pictured in the paddock with his arm around Fernando Alonso, who he had signed at great expense from Renault to deliver the world title to McLaren for the first time in a decade. Alonso wanted assurances that Hamilton, who turned out to be quicker than any imagined, could be managed, pacified, restricted to a supporting role.
The answer came on race day when Hamilton, who started the season with a 3rd in Australia and a second in Malaysia, each time a place behind Alonso, finished ahead of his team-mate for the first time, following Felipe Massa’s winning Ferrari home. The same result at the next race in Spain flagged Hamilton’s growing assurance. He was not here to finish behind the Spaniard, a point he made explicit in Monaco after being ordered not to attack race leader Alonso as the pair lapped the field.
Whatever control Dennis thought he had was shredded in the post-race media conference. Hamilton made plain that in his own mind at least he was not here to carry water for anybody. Back-to-back victories, his first in F1, at Canada and America propelled him to the top of the championship and into murky PR waters stirred up by the Spanish media, who naturally enough projected the vision of Alonso as being terribly let down by Dennis and McLaren, who they alleged had failed to honour Alonso’s no.1 status.
Alonso was and is hugely popular and respected in the sport. His position as a double world champion, the man who brought F1 credibility to Spain, gave him cache and power in the media space. Outside of the UK, Alonso was portrayed as the wronged man, a view that garnered plenty of sympathy and turned Hamilton into the bogeyman of the piece. What should have been a celebratory tale of a young driver breaking through was turning toxic.
Ultimately the internecine driver struggle, coupled with the parallel spygate scandal involving a McLaren engineer found in possession of Ferrari design secrets, saw the season implode at the Hungarian Grand Prix, where Alonso blocked Hamilton in qualifying and threatened to blow the whistle on his own team over what he knew about the Ferrari affair.
What we were really seeing a decade ago was the emergence of an all-time great making his bones against the standard bearer of the period but losing the PR war. He is in a sense still paying the price for that. Ironically, the animos that Alonso and Hamilton had for each other back then has long since morphed into mutual appreciation. This from Alonso on Hamilton after the latter had secured his fourth world title in Mexico.
“In every single season he has been very competitive, apart from one or two with Jenson (Button) when he had some issues. He was able to win with a dominant car, with a good car like 2010 or 2012, or with bad cars like 2009 and 2011. Not all the champions can say that.”
Alonso was simply recognising the kind of accounting that really matters in sport, the number in the ‘win’ column. Hamilton has racked up 62 victories, second only to Schumacher’s 91. He is indisputably Britain’s most successful grand prix driver and subordinate to only two men in F1, five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio and Schumacher, whose record of seven titles might just be under threat as Hamilton commits his future to Mercedes.
After his unlikely win in Singapore, where Vettel and Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen took each other out as well as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at the first corner to all-but rubber stamp Hamilton’s title, the champion-elect gave us a glimpse of his state of mind. “I do look at my life," he said. "To stand out in the world today, it is a lot harder because it has all been done before. To do something different as an F1 driver, not only be as great as you can be as a driver but also to do other things, to prepare your after-life to be just as great. F1 is the pinnacle of the sport but it doesn't mean you can't still do great things.
“Doing something different that helps you stand out that highlights your individuality is really important and that is something I am working on. I will continue to race while I love it, but I do think that it would be really nice at some stage to live in one place for a period of time. But then I think there is a lot of life to live beyond 40, and I can't come back to F1. There will be point when I have had enough. I have been very blessed. And I want to go out on top. That is my goal. There is more to come. Hard times ahead, more challenge, and I love that.”
Perhaps in the next and in all likelihood the final phase of his career, Hamilton might just get the universal recognition his gifts deserve. This would require the haters to treat him on merit and to suspend condemnation based on accounting practices widely shared in Formula One and beyond. Too much to ask? Probably.