Lewis Hamilton’s decision to leave Vodafone McLaren Mercedes at the end of 2012 to join Mercedes beginning in 2013 has been the most controversial decision of the 2012 Formula One season. Nobody, however, sounds more disappointed in Hamilton’s decision than the man who has mentored him since the age of 11, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh.
Hamilton apparently had a bit of discontent brewing with McLaren’s reliability and pace this year. The rumors of a purported departed from McLaren–his longtime team and one of the best in the business–began toward the end of the summer this year. Many thought Hamilton’s management company, which is more of a global branding house than a motor sports agency, were simply posturing to rake in as much money as possible for the 2008 World Drivers Champion. McLaren reportedly put that rumor to bed by offering Lewis Hamilton more money than their first offer and that of Mercedes’ pitch. So, as I understand, money might not have been the sole motivator for Lewis Hamilton’s switcheroo.
The 2012 Singapore Grand Prix revealed a bit of Hamilton’s frustration with the team, and certainly a few [key] infamous botched pit stops earlier in the season have not helped Hamilton’s patience with the team. The MP4-27 suffered from a high-and-low season where it shined brilliantly at times with a clear advantage in raw speed, and the rest of the time it seemed a bit off pace or suffered mechanical failures. His teammate Jenson Button can certainly relate to the feeling (Monza, anyone?). Nevertheless, despite McLaren’s uncharacteristic inconsistency, Martin Whitmarsh is still at the reins of one of the most legendary and successful Formula One institutions. Anyone in Hamilton’s shoes could appreciate the privilege of driving for McLaren.
So, where did Lewis Hamilton and Martin Whitmarsh diverge on the Briton’s future in Formula One? Martin Whitmarsh had a few things to say about it recently:
“It is always bad to make a decision in the aftermath of a bad race,” Whitmarsh said. ”He would be better off with us; we are the stronger team and we intend to beat him next year . . . You have to justify your decision. He is not going to say ‘Hey, they offered me more money’ . . . He is also not going to say he’s made an awful mistake. I hope he thinks he’s made an awful mistake and I hope he thinks that next year.
”Maybe he is completely dispassionate about it, but my guess is we both will have very emotional moments in Brazil. I have known him since he was 11 and worked with him since his teens and I know we will both be very emotional after Brazil . . . We have had one or two emotional moments since the decision was taken and I believe, but you must ask him, that we have a very good relationship.”
Clearly, Whitmarsh is disappointed and emotional in Hamilton’s move. But he also reveals that there was not much logic in why Lewis made the move. Competitive advantage? No. Money? No. Prestige? No. Respect? Definitely not. In a way, Martin Whitmarsh is revealing that Lewis Hamilton is and has been frustrated at McLaren, which motivated his move to Mercedes, a team without a proven track record or a guaranteed future in Formula One. Hamilton, himself, has described it as him needing a new “challenge” in working from the ground-up to develop the Mercedes W04 and onward. Whether Hamilton will succeed with Mercedes is a silly question right now, but whether he can endure frustrating seasons while developing a car (without a chance of winning) is less of question. Hamilton may not be given preferential treatment over an equally young and hungry Nico Rosberg, who is still struggling to step out in the limelight despite bringing Mercedes its first win in Shanghai earlier this year.
Mercedes is going to be messy for Lewis Hamilton, and Whitmarsh is absolutely right in believing Lewis will consider his move an “awful” decision in little time. Hamilton may also be keeping himself open to other opportunities by signing a 3-year deal with Mercedes, which is not short by any means. However, with Fernando Alonso’s deal at Ferrari running through 2016, one could surmise that even a second seat at Ferrari for the younger Hamilton could be in the works at some point depending on how things go at Mercedes and when Alonso calls it a career. There is no doubt that Lewis Hamilton is a very, very talented driver, but will his antics this season turn other teams like Red Bull and Ferrari away from him in the future should he once again decide to switch teams? As a team principal, would you want an older Lewis Hamilton driving one of your cars?