The papers are full of the ‘rift’ between Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren team over the Melbourne ‘lie-gate’ scandal. They talk of the relationship being ‘on a knife-edge’.
So will it happen? Will Lewis leave the team that has nurtured him since he left primary school? And if that were to happen, which team would he move to?
We have been here before with Lewis. He and his father Anthony were very unhappy about the politics swirling around the team during the 2007 championship, when McLaren were embroiled in the spy scandal surrounding Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan. Many things happened during that season, which took their breath away and made them wonder about whether to quit the sport. F1 is unlike any other level of motorsports because of the sheer intensity of the competition and the ferocity of the politics. Despite many years of studying for the starring role, Hamilton couldn’t believe the baggage that came with it.
And it quickly became apparent that being a McLaren driver, particularly that summer, made him even more of a target than he had imagined. The team seemed to be embroiled in one issue after another.
Hamilton’s reputation did not sustain much damage that summer as a result of the spy story, he was exonerated of any involvement, had no part in the email traffic between team mate Fernando Alonso and test driver Pedro de la Rosa which did for the team. There is no evidence that Lewis knew about the Ferrari data.
However, if you recall, McLaren told the first hearing into the spy story that the information did not pass beyond Coughlan into the organisation. With the subsequent discovery of the email traffic, they were forced to come clean and admit that the Ferrari data had penetrated deep into the company. It was a similar pattern of behaviour to what we saw from them in the days after Melbourne, initial denial, call it deception if you will, then getting caught out by fresh evidence, then grovelling apology. The two situations have significantly damaged McLaren’s integrity and reputation as a sporting institution. Hamilton was not damaged by association with the first, but definitely is through direct involvement in the second.
There were times during that period in 2007 and again in 2008, as Lewis was picking up penalties on the track, when you heard Anthony Hamilton openly wondering whether they should just get out of F1. But the raging ambition to win the world title, to fulfil what they saw as their destiny, kept them in it. Hamilton brought many of the penalties on himself, with his uncompromising approach, but somehow being on McLaren’s team seemed to make it all worse.
Now the Hamiltons are openly questioning whether they can stay at McLaren after all that has happened in the last week. They look across at Massa at Ferrari and Kubica at BMW and wonder why they are not constantly in the political cross-hairs?
Malaysia has made Hamilton feel like Michael Schumacher did in 1994, when Benetton was getting hammered for ‘cheating’ over an illegal launch control system and a dodgy fuel filter. Schumacher was also banned for a few races that summer after ignoring a black flag at Silverstone. He and his manager felt that they had to get away from Benetton to stop the association of his name with cheating and that process led him to Ferrari in the summer of 1995.
Hamilton has grounds for feeling the same way now. It seems to have been established and accepted that he was ‘told’ to mislead the stewards, so should he move to save his reputation from further damage?
On top of that he looks at the team’s general situation at the moment. McLaren have built him a slow car, that’s not the end of the world, but they are likely to face some kind of heavy sanction for their behaviour in Melbourne and Sepang and that must impact on their ability to recover and move forward as a team. They have lost a key organisational figure in Dave Ryan and may yet lose their new team principal Martin Whitarsh, which would leave the ship pretty rudderless.
It would be an earthquake if he were to leave McLaren, given the history, but they are weighing up whether the team is just pre-destined to keep shooting itself in the foot and whether he’d be better off out of there.
So where would he go? Ferrari is the first name on the list, but his old nemesis Fernando Alonso has got their first. He has an agreement to join Ferrari in 2011, with an option for 2010 if Raikkonen underperforms this season.
BMW? There are several problems with BMW, first they already have Robert Kubica and may feel that they do not need Hamilton. Second they are not a team which spends big money on drivers.
Brawn? They have the fastest car at the moment, but that is because they bought themselves a big headstart by not showing up last season. They won’t be able to do that again so easily. The big teams will catch up.
However, if we get the budget cap of £30 million or more, then this will level the playing field in the favour of teams like Brawn. The manufacturers would not be able to beat them on resources alone.
I find it fascinating that the person in power to whom Hamilton appears to have turned for advice in recent days is Max Mosley. He’s clearly learned what Schumacher knew, that the best way to stay ahead of the others is to have a good relationship with the man who makes the rules. Brawn GP is important for Mosley because it is a blue print for his vision of the sport; a well engineered, lean team with customer engines. Low-cost, high quality F1.
The Brawn model is important now, just as re-invigorating Ferrari was in 1996.
If Hamilton were to join forces with Brawn, it would give the team huge commercial appeal, as Schumacher’s arrival gave Ferrari. Brawn says he is looking for ‘strong partners’ for the future. He didn’t say those partners couldn’t be drivers….