Formula One: Mercedes grab Bernie Ecclestone's $111m honeypot easily

Russian President Vladimir Putin on the podium in Sochi with Lewis Hamilton on Oct 11, after the Mercedes driver clinched his second straight Russian Grand Prix. Come Sunday, the Briton will be hoping that instead of a Russian fur hat, he will be don
Russian President Vladimir Putin on the podium in Sochi with Lewis Hamilton on Oct 11, after the Mercedes driver clinched his second straight Russian Grand Prix. Come Sunday, the Briton will be hoping that instead of a Russian fur hat, he will be donning a stetson cowboy hat after a win in Texas.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Bernie Ecclestone gambled US$80 million (S$111 million) that Lewis Hamilton could not win back-to-back world championships - and lost.

Formula One's chief executive laid down a challenge to Hamilton's Mercedes team to replicate the extraordinary success of Red Bull, who won four world titles in a row.

Ecclestone believed that it was a feat that would not be repeated in this era and the US$80 million bounty he put on the table from F1's prize pot would be safe.

But Hamilton's win in Russia last week sealed the constructors' championship for Mercedes for the second year running and triggered Ecclestone's payment. It was also victory No. 20 for the British driver, with team-mate Nico Rosberg winning another eight, over the past two seasons.

"It was my stupidity really, when I said that if they could achieve what Red Bull achieved, which was two consecutive championships and winning 21 races, then they got paid for it," Ecclestone admitted.

"I was a bit foolish, but I thought Red Bull had done something pretty special and it would be hard for anyone to follow that. But Mercedes did and they will get paid at the end of the year, just as I promised I would."

The US$80 million will bolster the already huge finances backing the Mercedes squad and go a long way to paying off the £76.9 million (S$165 million) deficit run up as the German carmaker ramped up efforts to become world champions.

The high rollers of F1 have raised the stakes with spending soaring in the competition for supremacy. Mercedes have achieved total domination of F1 by increasing their budget by more than £49 million to £240.2 million in 2013, the crucial year as Hamilton's winning car for 2014 was prepared.

Mercedes are the third-highest earners under F1's complicated prize money system, taking away £78.5 million last year, but consecutive world championships should help them overtake Red Bull in the prize money list this season.

Hamilton could lock up his individual world championship on Sunday at the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, in what would be one of the most popular finishes to a season.

He has won two of the first three Austin races, rewarded each time with a stetson cowboy hat.

He is one of the few faces in F1 recognised by the American audience and a stetson-style "hat-trick" of wins on US soil would trigger a huge party in Austin, which has taken to the sport unlike many other areas of the United States. But the 30- year-old, on the threshold of equalling Jackie Stewart's British record of three world titles, refuses to get carried away, even though he has one hand on the trophy.

He needs to score only two or more points than Rosberg and nine or more than Sebastian Vettel, the Ferrari driver, to be sure of the title.

"I have learnt from experience that nothing is ever done until it's done in this sport, so I won't be taking anything for granted going into the weekend," Hamilton said.

"There are four races left for me to get this championship tied up and as long as it's done by the time I cross the line in Abu Dhabi (the final grand prix), that is what counts."

Reliability could be the Achilles' heel, though. The Mercedes cars have suffered two failures in the past three races, with Rosberg the victim last time out in Russia. Toto Wolff, Mercedes' head of motor sports, ordered a review into reliability at the headquarters factory at Brackley in Northamptonshire.

"Two retirements from the last three races is not up to our standards and we must ensure that every little detail is covered to give them that opportunity," he said.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2015, with the headline 'Mercedes grab Bernie's $111m honeypot easily'. Print Edition | Subscribe