McLaren must up their game this season or face a desperate struggle to retain the services of Lewis Hamilton, one of the defining talents of this Formula One generation. A third barren year would be enough to persuade Hamilton that he should look elsewhere if he is to fulfil his ambitions of becoming one of the sport’s great champions, a multiple world champion.
McLaren are not saying that, of course. And nor is Hamilton, directly. But there is a growing awareness in the paddock that Hamilton will look for a move if the Woking-based team are unable to match the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso and the genius of Adrian Newey at Red Bull. It is not difficult to read between the lines when Hamilton himself says: “I am not here to race 10 years and only win one or two world championships.
“I want to be one of the most successful F1 drivers of this generation so I do want to win more world championships and I think you have to continue winning and prove yourself time after time for people to really know that you are the best. I can’t say right now that people can say he was clearly the best in the world. I have only been here for four years so I have got a lot more to do.”
Hamilton, now 26, looked a frustrated figure once again as McLaren completed their last testing session in Barcelona earlier this month. This time McLaren are not only short of speed in relation to the pace?setting Red Bull and Ferrari teams, but also have reliability issues with their new Mercedes-powered MP4-26 car.
McLaren have immense mechanical resources. There, a car can move from intensive care into the recovery wing and then on to full, ruddy-faced fitness with bewildering speed, as they showed in 2009, when they started sluggishly only to produce a race winner by July.
But all the signs are that McLaren will be playing catch-up again this season. They never managed to close the gap last year, when neither Hamilton nor Jenson Button finished in the top three of the final drivers’ table. Despite all the promised upgrades, there was no jam tomorrow.
In fact the McLaren car was flattered by Hamilton’s ability to manhandle the best from it. The Englishman arrived at the final race in Abu Dhabi last year with an outside shot at the title.
Another failure at Woking could also lead to a restructuring of the team, who have won only one constructors’ championship in the past 14 years, in 1998. They have also won only one driver’s title since Mika Hakkinen’s triumph in 1999 – that was Hamilton’s success in 2008. But the Englishman narrowly missed out on the title in his stunning rookie year of 2007.
He is aware that Alonso already has two titles, with power to come, while Sebastian Vettel looks good for a clutch of championships at Red Bull. Of the 61 Formula One world championships, Michael Schumacher has won seven titles, Juan Manuel Fangio five, Alain Prost four and Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna three apiece.
Red Bull, the 2010 champions, would appear to be the obvious move for Hamilton. Mark Webber is 34, on a year-to year agreement and recently vowed to end his career with Milton Keynes-based outfit. Last week the team principal, Christian Horner, his eyes twinkling with mischief, said: “Lewis is a great driver. He’s a former world champion. He’s one of the best that there is. And he’s not going to be happy if he has another barren year. But that’s not to say that we’re looking for Lewis Hamilton to come to our team. We’re very happy with the two drivers that we currently have.”
But there are not many alternatives for Hamilton. Ferrari, where Alonso is monarch, is a nonstarter. And McLaren remain one of the two or three best teams in the business.
Mercedes GP are known to admire Hamilton’s racing skills. Schumacher is now 42 and coming to the end while Nico Rosberg is yet to win a race and does not appear to have the presence of a team leader. But they hit the test tracks in a shabby state and at this stage, anyway, they can hardly offer Hamilton a better drive than he has at McLaren.
But Hamilton is, probably, one of the two best drivers in the world, along with Alonso. And given the way the two squared up at McLaren four years ago many would give the British driver the edge over the Spaniard. Hamilton also appears fully motivated at all times.
Meanwhile, he continued to trot out the party line when asked about his future at McLaren. “Look at the history of McLaren,” he said. “They are an incredible team. I haven’t been to other factories, but McLaren have some of the greatest people I have ever met in the team. The way they treat their drivers is fantastic. It is a great place to go to work and I feel privileged to be part of the team. They are fighters and I am a fighter.”