By Steve Slater
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. And it set in motion a reshuffling of the F1 pack.
It seems that 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 are no doubt still smarting that at the end of 2009, McLaren signed then-World Champion Jenson Button from under their noses. There is little doubt the company are delighted to level the score by snatching Hamilton from McLaren to replace Schumacher.
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 so far 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 in signing with the team is its appointment as a ‘sporting advisor' of former three-times World Champion Niki Lauda.
The straight-talking Austrian will, I am sure, give an added focus to Mercedes' decision-making on the pit wall. More than that, he is a man who I am sure 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 Sauber driver Sergio Perez.
The Mexican is a graduate of the Ferrari Driver Academy and it seemed that his move to Maranello was a foregone conclusion. However, as the Ferrari management prevaricated over Felipe 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 in an impromptu press conference at the Suzuka circuit, Michael Schumacher announced his second retirement at the end of the 2012 season.
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-times 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 ten-place grid penalty for his collision with Jean-Eric Vergne in Singapore. But what about in Korea or India, where the long straights favour the Mercedes?
A win is certainly possible and what a retirement present that would be!