One brief chat in the Montreal paddock
has set tongues wagging about Lewis Hamilton's future in Formula One, but could
he seriously leave McLaren and what has he got to gain?
The names Hamilton and McLaren have been
connected ever since Hamilton, as a cheeky youngster, famously told team boss
Ron Dennis he wanted to race for the team. That was when he was 10. Three years
later, he was signed to their young driver programme and the rest is history.
A meeting with Red Bull boss Christian
Horner last weekend was taken as an indicator of the level of Hamilton's
apparent unrest at McLaren - but while this particular moment may have drawn
more media speculation than it justifies, it has presented an interesting
question: what would Hamilton have to gain from leaving McLaren?
On winning his only F1 title with
McLaren in 2008, Hamilton, who by then was a year into his five-year contract,
said: "I'm with the team I always dreamt of driving with and when you're
living your dream and you've got the car you always wanted to have, why would
you need to change? I don't know how many years I'm going to be in Formula One.
I haven't decided. Today I got in the car outside the factory and I had the
biggest smile on my face. The day that I get in the car and I don't feel that,
that will be the day I will need to retire. But I want to see my career out
with this team."
Less than three years later, the current
McLaren doesn't seem to be making him smile so much - but there may be more to
it than that. He is different now, and so is McLaren.
Hamilton's love of McLaren was built on
the strength of his personal relationship with Dennis. Soon after the Briton
won the title, Dennis stepped away from leading the team itself to manage the
McLaren group. Hamilton no doubt still has an emotional attachment both to
McLaren and to Dennis, even without Dennis regularly present at races, but
loyalty in F1 is rare, and it is generally connected to results or money.
Since his title-winning season, Hamilton
has won just five races. With Button adding three, McLaren's total is nine from
43 races, making a win rate of 21 percent.
That is actually the second highest of
all the teams, with Red Bull the highest on 46.5, Brawn/Mercedes third at 18.5
(although all those wins were as Brawn), Ferrari at 14 and nobody else on the
score sheet. So far this season, McLaren has looked most likely to threaten Red
Bull's domination - so does Hamilton really have a clear reason to leave?
His contract lasts until the end of
2012, and the chances of him moving anywhere before then are pretty slim, so
really this is all about 2013 and a lot can change by then, particularly when
new regulations are likely to come in for that season.
At 26, Hamilton is now reaching what is
acknowledged as the prime time in an F1 driver's career, and recently a couple
of announcements have clearly made him realise his next contract decision will
be the biggest of his life.
Sebastian Vettel extended his Red Bull
deal to 2014 three months ago and Fernando Alonso announced last month that he
is committed to Ferrari until 2016. Hamilton, no doubt, believes he could take
on either of those drivers - but each has nurtured strong support from their
respective teams as lead drivers and having two 'number ones' comes with two
major pitfalls - cost and relationship troubles.
Vettel's new contract is understood to
be worth around £10m per year while Alonso's is rumoured to be around £30m per
year. Red Bull are also believed to be paying top designer Adrian Newey around
six million per year - so adding another big salary could be tough,
particularly as Hamilton would want salary parity at least.
Also, a renewal of the Hamilton-Alonso
partnership is unthinkable, and with Vettel enjoying the kind of relationship
with Red Bull that Hamilton had with McLaren back in 2008 as the team's golden
boy, the idea of upsetting such a strong bond makes that a big risk for Red
Bull, one that they may not want to take.
Even down at Mercedes, the future seems
focused on German Nico Rosberg, who is starting to blossom into a very strong
front-running driver and is of a similar age to Hamilton.
So, in truth, right now, while Hamilton
is not officially a number one at McLaren he is often seen as such and it is
the only current front-running team that he can make his own.
One key change to Hamilton in the last
year has been the arrival of Simon Fuller's XIX Entertainment in a management
position, replacing Hamilton's father Anthony, and as representative for the
likes of David Beckham and Andy Murray, they know how to secure a deal.
Perhaps, then, with his rivals locking
out lucrative packages for the long-term, Hamilton's overt meeting with Horner
is simply about securing a future with his current employers now rather than
later... and trying to bump up the price as he does so.