Lewis Hamilton’s win in the Canadian Grand Prix was perfectly timed – and the team knew it. “We needed this one,” conceded technical director Paddy Lowe.
It wasn’t just that Hamilton’s win came in the team’s 300th race with current engine supplier Mercedes. His victory finally stopped the rot at a team which has blown chance after chance since winning the opening round in Australia three months ago.
Reversal of fortunes
The reversal in the fortunes at McLaren compared to last year could hardly be more striking.
Over the course of 2011 Hamilton’s own mistakes cost the team badly. A string of collisions and errors in Monaco, Canada, Hungary, Belgium, Singapore and India left Hamilton languishing behind Jenson Button in the championship – the first time he had ever lost to a team-mate in F1.
This year the blunders have been almost entirely down to the McLaren team. A string of pit-lane goofs and slow stops have delayed Button and Hamilton - particularly the latter. In Spain the team spectacularly shot itself in the foot by putting too little fuel in Hamilton’s car during qualifying. He qualified in pole position by a margin that suggested he would have done so even if he had been fully-fuelled. Regardless, he was demoted from first on the grid to last.
Even in Canada, McLaren still looked rough around the edges. Hamilton’s final pit stop was slowed by trouble at the right-rear corner. Fortunately the team nailed his strategy on a day when Ferrari and Red Bull got it wrong for Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. Hamilton picked them off with ease in the final laps for his third victory at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
The victory for Hamilton has come at a crucial time, as his contract with the team is up for renewal.
He burst onto the F1 scene in spectacular fashion in 2007, finishing on the podium in his first nine races and leading the championship. McLaren were quick to tie him down to a long-term deal which has made him one of Britain’s wealthiest sportsmen.
McLaren Group chairman Ron Dennis was in Montreal for last weekend’s race and hinted that Hamilton should not expect as lucrative a deal this time: “He's at the end of a contract which was signed at a time when the economy was somewhat different and now there has to be a balance.”
Hamilton’s association with McLaren began 17 years ago when, aged nine, the newly-crowned karting champion introduced himself to Dennis at an awards ceremony with the words, “I won the British Championship and one day I want to be racing your cars.”
Before the year is out we’ll learn whether Hamilton will, like Jim Clark at Lotus before him, continue to pledge his F1 future to the same team.
It’s hard to envisage him driving for anyone other than McLaren. Particularly Ferrari, where the team would surely not want to risk destabilising favoured son Fernando Alonso after what McLaren went through when the pair were team mates in 2007.
But what about Red Bull? They’ve been the team to beat in recent seasons, Mark Webber’s contract expires this year, and it’s not hard to see how the Hamilton brand would fit with Red Bull’s youth-orientated marketing. If he ends up anywhere besides McLaren, it could well be there.
Hamilton’s win in Canada means he is leading the world championship and is currently favourite to win it, priced at 2.50. But in this fiercely competitive season, Alonso and Vettel are within three points of him in the standings and priced at 3.75 to win.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic.