Lewis Hamilton’s future at McLaren Mercedes, in the wake of the cheating scandal at the Australian Grand Prix, depends on the interaction between five key personalities who must find a way of re-establishing trust between a team and a driver who, up until 11 days ago, looked to be enjoying an unbreakable bond.
The allegations that Hamilton, under the instruction of Dave Ryan, the McLaren sporting director who has since been sacked, tried to cheat Jarno Trulli, the Toyota driver, out of third place in Melbourne have unleashed powerful emotional forces that threaten to destroy a relationship that Hamilton had often said he hoped would last all his career in Formula One.
At McLaren, the leading players in trying to retrieve the situation are Martin Whitmarsh, the team principal, Ron Dennis, the chairman, and Hamilton himself. Outside the team is Anthony Hamilton, who manages his son, and hovering in the background is the imposing figure of Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, who is playing a potentially explosive hand with his usual adroitness.
Hamilton Sr does not get on with Dennis, whom he views as overcontrolling, and he would prefer to see the team run by Whitmarsh. Dennis, on the other hand, detests Mosley, in feelings that are fully reciprocated, and will be furious that the FIA president has become involved in an internal McLaren matter by advising the Hamiltons on what to do next. Whitmarsh, who gets on with everyone, is trapped in the middle.
Whitmarsh is an engineer by training, with a logical and calm approach, who has been in Dennis’s slipstream for 20 years. He assumed the role of team principal only at the beginning of last month and this crisis is his opportunity to take the initiative. He wants the team to be more open and friendly than under Dennis – one of his first moves was to repair relations with Ferrari – and he still enjoys the respect of the Hamiltons. Rather than fight or deny, as tended to be the case under Dennis when under the microscope of the FIA, Whitmarsh’s instinct is to admit failings and co-operate.
Dennis remains the most powerful figure at a team he has forged in his own likeness. Obsessive and driven by the need to settle old scores, his career has veered from moments of glory to some of McLaren’s most miserable lows. The full role he played in this affair is still not clear, but some believe that he was instrumental in determining whether Ryan and Hamilton backed down before the reconvened stewards’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur or continued to “provide deliberately misleading evidence”, as was the case.
Mosley has a role to play because, on the one hand, the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council will determine what further punishment McLaren might receive, which could, in turn, affect Lewis Hamilton’s decision whether to stay or leave. That Hamilton Sr chose to seek Mosley’s advice in recent days will have delighted the FIA president, who knows how much that will have irritated his old foe, Dennis.
Mosley would love to see Dennis walk the plank or lose his most cherished possession, the world champion, but, equally, the more that Dennis senses that, the less likely he is to give Mosley that pleasure.