When years-long partnerships end, there is always a winner and a loser. As the McLaren-Lewis Hamilton divorce has been finalized, McLaren comes out the winner. Sure, Hamilton has run off with a younger, prettier model. He’s making more money, doesn’t have to answer pointed questions about where he’s been until two in the morning, and will have more freedom to develop his own ideas. However, McLaren has a younger model of its own. One who is bringing money with him instead of asking for more. One who stands quietly while managing tyres and pushing the big boys hard with a brilliant smile.
Hamilton won a championship for McLaren in 2008. Then when McLaren’s equipment didn’t quite work for him, he complained. He blamed sponsorship commitments and an overtaxing schedule at his home race for poor performance there. He has proven to be an even more arrogant child that the one who walked up to Ron Dennis and told him that he would be driving for him. There is no disputing Hamilton’s talent. He is amongst the small handful of best drivers currently on the Formula 1 grid. Then he ruins it by acting like a spoiled and entitled child.
Granted, most Formula 1 drivers are actually spoiled and entitled children. They’ve good reason to be. They are pampered and coddled and work hard as anyone can to put talent and a good car on top of the podium. It is part of the job description to be arrogant and pushy. They all are…
But McLaren won the day Hamilton posted telemetry on the internet. McLaren won the day they hired Sergio Perez. McLaren won the day they kept Jenson Button. McLaren won the day a driver who clearly no longer wanted to be part of the team left. McLaren has a history of knowing how to deal with recalcitrant drivers, drivers who no longer feel confidence in the team, who no longer feel loved by the team. Just ask Kimi Raikkonen or Fernando Alonso.
McLaren won the day Hamilton left to go to a team widely considered to not be one of the big boys quite yet. Mercedes is a mid-pack team, a team that had relied on Michael Schumacher’s talent for development to push them forward. Even that has failed at Mercedes. Hamilton is replacing Schumacher, partnering solid and dependable Nico Rosberg.
It is hard to say whether Hamilton has the development skills to move Mercedes up, to force them out of the mid-field. Hamilton has only ever dated that one girl, the one who hooked him when he was young. He has only driven for McLaren in Formula 1, and his record in the development stakes there is a hard path to follow.
When McLaren tries new things, new wings or other bits and bobs, there is seemingly little solidarity. When Jenson Button got to keep the old wing and Hamilton got the new developmental wing, when the new wing wasn’t faster, Hamilton punished the team. He cried loudly and often that the team was not supporting him. He went so far as to release team data publicly.
In a sport that may just be the pinnacle of spying and secret keeping, to release team data is unconscionable. When minute tyre and areo decisions come down to he and his race engineers, if the choice isn’t right or doesn’t work out, Hamilton blames the race engineers. McLaren won the day a driver who clearly no longer wanted to be part of the team left.
McLaren apparently changed for Hamilton when Ron Dennis left the managing of the race team to Martin Whitmarsh. Maybe the team stopped being so supportive. Maybe Hamilton didn’t have anyone to run to, and ran instead to the press to air his problems. Maybe the fracturing relationship with his father left Hamilton no proper support system. We aren’t inside his head, we only know what he says out loud, to the press and on the team radio.
Formula 1 is a mental sport. The team must give the driver a good car, but the extra tenths come from physical talent and mental readiness. When the team and the driver aren’t getting along, the situation must change. Mercedes could well be the very best place for Hamilton to be. Ross Brawn has dealt with Schumacher throughout his career, so he will absolutely know how to deal with a strong personality. Hamilton may need the challenge of developing a car to push his talent and make him a stronger driver. Or he could continue to blame the car and team if things don’t go his way.
McLaren won the day a driver who clearly no longer wanted to be part of the team left. They chose a replacement used to working with mid-field machinery and hungry to prove himself capable. When Luca di Montezemolo pronounced Sergio Perez unready to be part of a top team, he may well have hurried along an already burning fuse. Perez has long been a thorn in the side of the big teams, managing his tyres and one-stopping his way to personal best finishes for himself and out of the current ordinary ones for Sauber. Of course, he may well crack under the pressure at a team like McLaren. Still, he has a handy and smiling big brother in Button seemingly ready to take him under his wing.
Perez, too, is seemingly already used to living the life of a driver beholden to sponsorship. Without the TelMex money of world’s richest man Carlos Slim, there wouldn’t be a Mexican driver in F1 right now. It bodes well for a team used to expecting drivers to follow orders and be good boys in public. Perez has always seemed talented. Top-flight cars and systems could be the final push he needs to start winning races and the championships McLaren is already capable of winning.
If Perez doesn’t work out, there are tens and hundreds of drivers dreaming of racing for McLaren. The team has the ultimate resources, and now they have a vacant seat filled for now by Perez. It would have been near impossible to force Hamilton out had he not jumped on his own, should circumstances have gone that far. They were already terrible. An unhappy driver doesn’t win races, he causes drama. Hamilton was unhappy, and over far more than a little money. McLaren won the day a driver who clearly no longer wanted to be part of the team left the team. Only the future will tell us who will win more races.