A week ago it seemed as if there would be a stable status quo at the top of the Formula One driver market for 2013. Lewis Hamilton was thought to be minded to renew his contract with McLaren, if only because they offered him the more competitive car.
Michael Schumacher, it was assumed, would renew his contract with Mercedes. The only speculation was whether Felipe Massa had done enough to keep his seat at Ferrari, or would Sergio Perez step up from Sauber.
Then, last Friday, it all changed when Mercedes proudly announced their signing of Hamilton. It has set in train a reshuffling of the F1 pack.
It seems money, as much as a more competitive car, is the driving force behind the Mercedes deal. A bigger salary than McLaren’s offering, plus the opportunity to earn extra revenue from lucrative advertising opportunities seem to have turned Lewis’s head.
Revenge is sweet for Mercedes, who, no doubt, are still smarting that at the end of 2009, McLaren signed on then world champion Jenson Button from under their noses. There is little doubt the company are delighted to level the score by snatching Hamilton.
With Hamilton joining his long-time karting buddy Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, the team have a strong and compatible driver line-up. However, will it be the key to winning more races?
Bluntly, it needs to be.
So far, in the three years since Mercedes AMG Petronas joined the starting grid, their star engineering and driver line-up has brought only a single victory, for Nico Rosberg in China this April.
Despite being headed by the legendary Ross Brawn and a host of the top technical brains in the sport, including Bob Bell (ex Renault), Geoff Willis (Williams) and Aldo Costa (Ferrari), the team has struggled to offer a car which is a consistent match for rivals Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari.
Clearly Hamilton has high hopes for the future. One factor which may have influenced Hamilton could be the appointment of former three-time world champion Niki Lauda as ‘sporting advisor’.
The straight-talking Austrian will, I am sure, give added focus to Mercedes’ decision-making on the pit wall. More than that, he is a man Lewis respects and may be just the sort of race-hardened father figure who can keep Lewis’s sometimes over-developed ego under control.
Meanwhile, McLaren has already pulled off a masterstroke by signing Perez.
The Mexican is a graduate of the Ferrari Driver Academy and it seemed his move to Maranello was a foregone conclusion. However, as the Ferrari management prevaricated over Massa’s future, McLaren swooped and Perez slipped through Ferrari’s fingers.
Perez is, in my view, the most talented graduate to Formula One in recent years. It could even be that Perez in a McLaren might beat Hamilton in a Mercedes to the first victory of the 2013 season.
The final turn in this pack of cards came on Thursday, when Michael Schumacher announced retirement — his second — at the end of the 2012 season, at an impromptu press conference at the Suzuka circuit.
As in 2006, when the German could see the doors at Ferrari closing as the team homed in on future signing Kimi Raikkonen, the seven-time world champion has been squeezed aside, this time by Mercedes, in favour of younger talent.
That means there are just six races left in Schumacher’s 21-year Formula One racing career. Could one of those races culminate in that record-breaking, yet so far elusive 92nd race victory?
The odds will be stacked against Schumacher in Suzuka where he faces a 10-place grid penalty for his collision with Jean-Eric Vergne in Singapore.
But in Korea or India, where the long straights favour the Mercedes, a win is certainly possible. And, what a retirement present that would be!
Steve Slater is an F-1 race commentator on STAR Sports.