Lewis Hamilton has already admitted that he doesn't know whether his move from McLaren to Mercedes-Benz for the 2013 Formula 1 World Championship will work. He hasn't done it with a plan in mind. He's an emotional guy and he felt he had to get out of McLaren – for reasons that had little to do with racing and a lot to do with the need to find a true independence that he could never feel at an organization that had been his racing home since he was 13 years old.
Having wrestled with the life decision, only then did the racing logic of where to go come into his thinking. Where he really wanted to go was Red Bull Racing, alongside Sebastian Vettel, whom Hamilton feels he could outperform. His management agency, Simon Fuller's XIX [nineteen] organization, made an approach to RBR early season 2012 but was told there wasn't a place for Lewis there. Privately, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner felt that teaming Hamilton with Vettel spelled potential trouble, while acknowledging that the Briton was fantastically gifted and possibly even faster than the reigning champion.
Hamilton's case was then made to Ferrari, a team operating around the nexus of Fernando Alonso, who had long made it plain that he had no wish to re-create the McLaren 2007 pairing. Ferrari, a team naturally attuned to focusing on a clear number one driver and employing a merely “solid” number two, completely agreed. They, too, are privately in awe of the talent of Hamilton, probably the only rival Alonso fears now that Robert Kubica is out of F1.
Locked out of the obvious race-winning seats other than the one he already had at McLaren, Lewis gave XIX permission to make a formal approach to Mercedes during the 2012 summer break. Into its third season with the Michael Schumacher/Nico Rosberg pairing, it had yet to shape up into a title-contending outfit, despite the breakthrough of Rosberg's early-season China Grand Prix victory. Mercedes was very interested, if somewhat surprised. What happened next (and this is illuminating) was that Lewis instructed XIX to make fresh approaches to both Red Bull and Ferrari. Again, both politely, and perhaps regretfully, declined.
So Hamilton had a stark choice: the familiar near-certainty of McLaren competitiveness, but the accompanying resentment over McLaren Group executive chairman Ron Dennis' heavy-handed control over him; or a fresh challenge, with none of that 14-year baggage. Plus, even though Mercedes was only his third choice, if the team happened to finally get it right, it could look like a brilliant move. If not, well, he'd still only be 30 when the contract ended. He was ripe for being told of the rosy prospects of the team, how it would be built around him, how it was going to be in particularly good shape come 2014 when the new V6 turbo formula was introduced. Ross Brawn duly delivered that pep talk, pushing against a half-open door because Lewis' mind was pretty much made up. Schumacher's second retirement was subsequently hastened.
Yet, even once his Mercedes deal was signed and announced, Hamilton was still openly dismissive of the team's likely prospects. “I've driven the odd dodgy car before, don't forget,” he said at the Jerez tests in answer to a question about the task he expects to face in 2013. And the initial signs at that test weren't great. The new W04 proved to be a little light on front grip and on Lewis' first day it suffered a partial brake failure at around 200mph.
However, to judge the car's prospects on that would be hasty. Some fairly major changes have been made to the technical structure of the team. The previous car's trick “double DRS” – which initially brought a qualifying advantage but had associated limitations in race trim – has been banned. Although outwardly similar to last year's W03, the new car is a more conventional machine. There appear to be few obvious reasons why it shouldn't at least be closer to the front-runners than the one second per lap that its predecessor lagged behind the Red Bulls and McLarens by the end of 2012.
But the point is, its ultimate prospects are uncertain – and Hamilton has already made his peace with that fact. This was not a career path-dictated move, but a life choice. At McLaren, he and the team were locked together in their respective roles of firm-handed parent and rebellious child. The points of conflict such as the number of corporate days they wanted from him and their retention of the trophies were just small glimpses of a bigger, underlying problem between the two parties. Hamilton was the proud champion with a total inner conviction that he's the fastest guy out there, but he was never allowed to feel he had repaid the debt to a team that helped him transcend his working class background to attain success, wealth and stardom.
The source of that feeling was invariably Dennis. “Last time I checked, we employed him, not the other way round,” said the 65-year-old, while wearing a red team victory T-shirt, celebrating a brilliant Hamilton win in Montreal. That was the embodiment of the controlling force that any right-minded, free-spirited racecar driver rails against and the precise reason the team lost Kimi Raikkonen and Alonso in the past. Lewis had effectively replaced the firm parental hand of his dad Anthony, who kept him on a tight leash in the junior categories, with another in the form of Ron. For the then 27-year-old winner of 18 GPs (at that point) and a World Championship, such control was suffocating.
There was probably the additional element of XIX and its determination to make Hamilton more of a global brand. That was not a concept that sat easy with the corporate requirements of McLaren. Hamilton's agency was telling him he needed to be freed from the team's demands on his time in order to boost his own wealth, while the team was insisting on maintaining those demands.
Mercedes-Benz AMG F1, on the other hand, was happy to adopt a more relaxed stance on sponsorship commitments, and Hamilton quickly came to appreciate that at M-B there's no controlling equivalent of Dennis. He may have been concerned when, after he'd signed, there was a major reshuffle within the Brackley, UK-based squad, as Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda bought into the team and rumors circulated that McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe would replace Ross Brawn. But so long as the freedoms he's been contractually granted are honored, he has little to fear.
Hamilton spoke of wanting to mold the team around him but, coming from his mouth, that merely sounded like a repetition of the sales pitch that Ross Brawn or commercial director Nick Fry used to tempt him to join! A hair-trigger, emotionally driven racer, Lewis isn't the type to apply the systematic approach that such molding requires. His presence and reputation as F1's fastest driver will surely trigger a certain response from the team; but he won't specifically direct things like some latter day Jackie Stewart at Tyrrell or Michael Schumacher at Ferrari. Hamilton will be happy and, if the car is quick, he'll be even happier. The engineers will quickly come to understand just how much oversteer he can adapt to, and that's probably as far as it goes.
If McLaren had been powering Hamilton to all the records he feels are his due – his frustration at those that Vettel is racking up emphatically does not sit easily with him – flying the nest would have been a more difficult decision. Given that this isn't the case (he could have taken the championship last year but for a series of operational and mechanical failures) and given that he cannot get his hands on the other “guaranteed” quick cars, Lewis seems entirely at ease with a choice that, from a competitive perspective, might or might not work.
If the Mercedes W04 is anywhere near the pace and doesn't destroy its tires like last year's car, then Hamilton is more than capable of bridging the gap and snatching the occasional against-the-odds victory. That would be a thrill, both to him and for F1 in general. Pre-season testing showed considerable promise for the W04, albeit with the usual caveats and questions over fuel loads used for the fast laps. Only in Melbourne will we start to get some real answers.
While many have rejoiced that, for the last few seasons, the best drivers have been in the best cars, there's also something especially thrilling about the fastest driver being in a car that's not the best, but which he can elevate to race with the quicker machinery. Think Gilles Villeneuve in 1981 or Ayrton Senna in '93. Occasionally a miracle may be possible, and Hamilton is absolutely capable of delivering them.
Seen in this way, Lewis can approach 2013 with a light heart. It surely isn't going to be the most consistently competitive season of his Formula 1 career, but it may well be his most enjoyable and satisfying. We are set for a lot of Hamilton magic this year.