McLaren looks set to have a fight on its hands to keep Lewis Hamilton on board for the long term after the British driver sounded out Red Bull Racing about future plans in Canada last weekend.
During an ultimately difficult event for Hamilton, who had gone into the Montreal grand prix as favorite for victory but suffered a troubled qualifying and an early exit from the race, fresh speculation emerged about what he intends to do after his current contract ends in 2012.
AUTOSPORT reports that Hamilton met for private talks with Red Bull Racing chief Christian Horner at the team's office buildings on Saturday evening, where the two spent at least 15 minutes together chatting in private.
Although it is not known exactly what they talked about, as one Red Bull source dismissed the get-together as nothing more than a "social visit," it would be unlikely that the pair did not discuss future intentions.
There is no suggestion that it was anything more than a preliminary chat, or that the talks will definitely develop into something in the future, but Hamilton's actions are of intrigue amid signs of growing frustration at the competitiveness of McLaren at a time when Hamilton is in the prime of his career. His crashes in Monaco and Canada, which have led to criticism of his mindset, are borne of the fact that he has to push so hard to try and beat Red Bull.
Hamilton had started the season as Sebastian Vettel's main threat for title glory, and his challenge for the championship had looked strong when he grabbed victory in the Chinese Grand Prix. However, since then, McLaren has not made the progress that it had hoped with its car and Hamilton's difficulties in Monaco and Montreal – two races he had been expected to win – have left him 76 points adrift of Vettel in the standings.
The performance in Canada last weekend was much more of a disappointment because he had gone into the weekend as clear favorite for the victory, only for McLaren to have made an error with the drag levels it needed to take the fight to Red Bull Racing and Ferrari in qualifying.
Longer term, Hamilton and his new management team of Simon Fuller's XIX Entertainment are widely known to be weighing up future intentions for when his current contract ends after 2012, and there must be some thought being given to the fact that McLaren has not been a pacesetter in F1 since his title season in 2008.
Hamilton's only real options for the future, in terms of giving him the best chance of having a front-running car, are either to remain at McLaren, or make the switch to Ferrari or Red Bull Racing. Ferrari appears to be a non-starter, however, with Fernando Alonso having signed a long-term deal and the Spaniard likely to be resistant to renewing a team partnership that turned so sour when he and Hamilton were together at McLaren in 2007. Although RBR would appear to be an unlikely destination, with the team currently so focused on Vettel, the capture of a top-line driver like Hamilton for 2013 could be viewed as a huge coup for Red Bull mogul Dietrich Mateschitz.
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh has played down talk of Hamilton's frustrations, and thinks there are no worries about his driver's mindset at the moment.
"I think he has had an unfortunate run," said Whitmarsh, "but I think he has to be the racer he is, and I am sure he will be. I am sure he is disappointed, but he is enjoying the win for the team."
Hamilton's latest links with Red Bull Racing are nothing new and earlier this season, following McLaren's troubled preseason testing program, there was already speculation suggesting that the driver and team could get together from 2013. At the time, however, Hamilton insisted that his focus remained wholly on McLaren – although he did not rule out a potential switch in the future.
"Of course, I'm going to be in Formula 1 for some time, and you never know which way the wind will take you," he said in March. "As I said, for now, I'm committed to trying to make this team the most successful it can be, and I feel we can do that."
Red Bull Racing also moved at the time to play down the prospects of partnering Vettel and Hamilton, although the idea was not totally dismissed.
"It's difficult to see how you could have two drivers of Lewis and Sebastian's caliber under one roof," said Horner. "There tends to be fireworks, as we saw with Fernando Alonso and Lewis. So we're very happy with the lineup that we have and we'll see how things evolve."
Despite the difficulties Hamilton is facing in his current situation, those who know him well insist the 2008 World Champion will lift himself out of the troubles he is facing. Mercedes-Benz motorsport boss Norbert Haug, who has helped guide Hamilton's career for many years, thinks that the Briton is simply going through the kind of difficult phases all drivers experience in their careers.
"I understand Lewis perfectly and I will defend him," Haug said. "He is a good driver, he is a friend and I do not share the criticism that is on him.
"We will support him and he is a great driver. There are phases that you have to go through. There are difficult times but he will deliver OK and he is one of the great guys in the field. Of course, he gets a lot of criticism, but this will make him only stronger."