Legend has it that back in the early 1930s blues singer Robert Johnson, frustrated at how things were not panning out the way he wanted, went down one night to the deserted crossroads, the intersection where evil lay. There he made a Faustian pact and his career thereafter was electrified, his dreams fulfilled, albeit at a price.
The first part of Lewis Hamilton's dreams – getting to Formula 1 and becoming World Champion – were made true with the helping hand of McLaren, but his expectation of then dominating the sport in the way his hero Ayrton Senna did is not happening. And he's questioning whether he can cut the tie that binds. He's at his own crossroads, certain that if he ever got into a Red Bull his career would indeed be electrified. Improbably gifted, totally confident in that sublime talent, but with a restricted life experience, there's a turmoil within him as reality fails to match up to his arguably naive expectation. If that Red Bull opportunity were to open up, he'd surely choose to go down that road; such is his evident frame of mind.
Hamilton took a peek at the crossroads in Montreal a few months ago. For all that his initial contact with Red Bull was ham-fisted, the motivation is easy enough to understand. Since Hamilton's world title of 2008, we are into the third year of the Newey RB series being F1's gold standard, during which time McLaren has provided Hamilton with: a turkey that took until midseason to attain respectability (2009), a car that could challenge the RB6 only on tracks with long straights (2010) and this year's machine that has sometimes been the fastest on race day but which often cannot get close to the RB7 on Saturdays. For a driver of such towering talent in what should be his golden years, it's a worrying picture and Lewis' frustration has become increasingly evident as Sebastian Vettel racks up the race victories and potentially a string of titles.
Vettel has already taken one record of Hamilton's that Lewis can never regain – that of youngest World Champion – and Seb's victory (his 16th) at Valencia in June took him ahead of Hamilton on career race wins for the first time. Make no mistake: Hamilton is keenly aware of such key statistics. They matter to him.
“It would suck if I only ever won one title,” he said recently. In that quote is contained both his supreme belief in his own standing and his doubts about whether he is in the right place.
“The World Championship's like a gold medal,” he expands. “It's great to have but doesn't last very long. You move on. I never think about my one very small World Championship. In the past, not many people won the championship – it was the same guys winning them. But now everyone has them. There are five drivers on the grid with titles. A different guy is winning it every year. So it holds less value for me, because other people have won. But having two or three, that's a nice thing. That would say something.” Preening arrogance or the unworldly, simplistic viewpoint of a kid? He's a fascinating mix of both.
He is not a driver – like some – for whom the external validations are irrelevant. He desperately needs to prove what he knows to be true.
“It's demoralizing when people start questioning how good you are,” he said back in '09, “and the media starts talking and speculating, ‘Oh, this person must be better because he's winning,' and you can't fix that – you can't react by going faster, because you don't have the car.”
He's into his fifth season, he's 26 years old. Put plainly, if he's to mark himself out as more than just “one of” the top drivers of this era, he needs to hurry. With that reality in the back of his mind, he is trying to decide where he needs to be – and isn't coming up with any easy answers.
Hamilton is the fastest driver in F1. That much is widely acknowledged within the paddock, and is a total conviction in his own mind. Pretty much everything else in that mind seems to be in a whirl as he tries to find the best way of aligning that belief with the hard reality of race wins and championships he feels are his due. He is as mercurial out of the car as in it and will often contradict himself within the same sentence. Such as when asked if he would derive any satisfaction from winning simply by being in the best car:
“Doesn't make any difference,” he reacts. “I want to win the World Championship and I don't care if it's as the underdog, but I don't like it to be easy. I never want to win it easy – it would feel worthless.” So which is it?