Last week the F1 world was rocked by the news that Lewis Hamilton will leave McLaren to drive for Mercedes in 2013.It’s a massive decision by Hamilton, whose association with McLaren goes back much further than the 104 races he has started for the team.
Hamilton first made contact with them when he was just nine years old, introducing himself to chairman Ron Dennis at an awards ceremony and declaring his intention to drive for the team one day. By any measure, Hamilton has enjoyed a successful association with McLaren. He very nearly claimed the title in his first season in 2007. The following year he became champion.
Hamilton and McLaren have never failed to taste success in each of their six seasons together, winning a minimum of two races per year in that time.
But there has always been an undercurrent of tension. It began in that first season with Fernando Alonso, when Hamilton fumed at what he felt was insufficient assistance from the team as he finished second behind Alonso at Monaco. In 2009 Hamilton was disqualified from the Australian Grand Prix after the FIA discovered he had misled them over whether he had let another driver overtake him during a safety car period. The affair cost McLaren’s sporting director Dave Ryan his job.
Last season marked a first for Hamilton as he failed to beat his team mate, Jenson Button, now in his second year with the team. At times Hamilton seemed distracted. After a bruising encounter in Monaco he made an ill-advised remark about the stewards punishing him “because I’m black” – a reference to comic character Ali G – which prompted furious criticism.
As the year went on, a string of collisions, often involving Felipe Massa, brought Hamilton’s judgement into question. In Korea he became the only driver all year long to beat Red Bull to pole position, then left onlookers mystified as he pointedly avoided celebrating his triumph.
Hamilton later referred to issues in his personal life being at the root of his troubles. Whatever the cause, he seems to have mastered them this year, driving what has surely been his most accomplished and error-free season to date. But for a string of problems out of his control – mistakes by his team, other drivers, and unreliability – he would surely be leading the championship.
The question now is whether he can master those problems in his final six races with McLaren, overhaul a 52-point deficit to Alonso and clinch a second world championship. It would be an extraordinary achievement worthy of a driver who is, in every sense, extra-ordinary.
Early odds on the Japanese Grand Prix
Sebastian Vettel has raced at Suzuka three times in F1. In that time he has never failed to take pole position or finish on the podium. He won there in 2009 and 2010. Last year the championship beckoned, and a restrained run to third guaranteed the title when a win was in the offing.
Vettel relishes Suzuka and the track has usually suited his Red Bull to a tee. “I love the Suzuka circuit,” he said ahead of this weekend’s Grand Prix. “It has the most amazing corners and brilliant fans, I really like coming here.”
Vettel can expect to get a hard time from a fired-up Hamilton who has nothing to lose and has vowed it’s “gloves off” in the championship from here on. But it would be unwise to underestimate the reigning world champion’s potential. The odds on him winning are 5.0 at the moment and that’s definitely worth snapping up – I’d be surprised if they do anything other than shorten from this point on.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic