McLaren started the 2012 season as clear favourites, locking out the front row for the season-opening Grand Prix and finishing first and third in the race. Since then, the team from Woking has had a bit of a bumpy ride.
Lewis Hamilton produced a stunning performance to win in Canada, but his results before and after the victory are perhaps more representative of McLaren’s position in the Formula One pecking order. Hamilton’s last six results are eighth (Bahrain), eighth (Spain), fifth (Monaco), first (Canada), retired (Valencia – due to a crash with Maldonado), and eighth (Britain).
At last weekend’s British Grand Prix, Hamilton qualified eighth in wet conditions, and was unable to improve on his starting position in the race. Team-mate Jenson Button finished tenth, simply because the car was not capable of a higher finish.
In short, McLaren’s season has fallen apart quite dramatically.
Hamilton’s contract with McLaren expires at the end of 2012. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh has publicly expressed confidence that his star driver will stay put, but Hamilton himself has said nothing to suggest that he will stay with McLaren. The Hamilton-McLaren partnership won the championship in 2008, but has not finished higher than fourth in a season since then.
Is it time for Hamilton to move on? Media rumours suggest that it may be, with rumblings of a possible connection to Lotus surfacing in the last few days. More likely, perhaps, is a move to Ferrari. Felipe Massa is out of contract with the Scuderia at the end of this season, which raises the question of who will partner Fernando Alonso next year. Mark Webber announced that he had contact with Ferrari, but the Australian decided to remain with Red Bull, which means the second Ferrari drive for 2013 is still undecided.
The only obvious obstacle to Hamilton joining Ferrari is his history with Fernando Alonso. Hamilton and Alonso were team-mates at McLaren in 2007, a season in which there was considerable friction in the team as Alonso suspected the British Hamilton was receiving favourable treatment. Ferrari would have to provide assurance to both drivers that similar conflict would not be possible at Maranello.
There is something to be said for a top driver moving away from a successful team. Fernando Alonso won back-to-back championships with Renault in 2005-2006 before leaving to join McLaren and then Ferrari. Michael Schumacher was similarly successful with Benneton before leading Ferrari’s resurgence in the late 9os. Perhaps Hamilton needs to branch out and make a name for himself that is separate from the McLaren team with which he has so long been associated.