Hamilton is currently raging against what has always been motor racing's hardest reality: the car defines your potential. On track and off, he's at that crossroads, trying to decide which road to take, and it's horribly complicated for one of his simplistic viewpoint. All sorts of side issues are fogging the view – the number of media/sponsor days, his personal life, etc. What's more, he seems to be lacking guidance in making those choices. Dispensing with the management services of his father Anthony was understandable from the perspective of someone needing, however belatedly, to cut the apron strings. But he has not appeared to replace the racing savvy of Anthony, only the commercial. The ineptness of his Montreal approach to Red Bull boss Christian Horner was just a little symptom of that.
But what's down each road? The one to the right – Ferrari – is surely a dead end. Fernando Alonso's presence there until at least 2016, the way he operates, the hangover of the poisonous McLaren pairing in 2007, must ensure that. Straight ahead, staying with McLaren? That's the easiest, but is it the best? He's unhappy there at the moment, dissatisfied like a teenager unable to articulate his frustrations, every parental decision questioned, criticized. Serious questions must be raised about McLaren's innate aerodynamic understanding and vision. Its facilities are out of this world, as is its technical muscle power in developing an initially below-par machine. But it has too often come up with such a car in recent years. Or is it just that the embodiment of Newey's vision at Red Bull has moved the goalposts, that McLaren is operating at the same level as in 2007 and '08 when it fielded the fastest car?
Whatever, it's difficult to see why McLaren continuing to do what it's always done will somehow enable it to catch and pass Red Bull in the short to medium term – and it's precisely that time frame that Lewis needs to be considering. A team can bounce back from a few years away from the cutting edge, but a driver's window of opportunity is slit-like by comparison.
There are other worrying side issues there, too. Rumors continue of a boardroom battle for control between Martin Whitmarsh and Ron Dennis. The Hamiltons – just like Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Adrian Newey – resented Dennis' heavy-handedness in controlling them when he was last team principal. Whitmarsh has presided over a much more consensual, less abrasive McLaren but now come the inevitable knee-jerk attempts at connecting that with the team's below-par technical performance of recent seasons. Whitmarsh is trying hard to keep what is a brilliant driver pairing together, but Hamilton's truculence is surely trying his patience and the tension between them might be creating more opportunity for any boardroom struggle to intensify, to potentially destructive effect.
In combination with the way the relaxed, pleasant, mature confidence of Jenson Button has won over many in the team, Hamilton risks being isolated here. The longer he delays laying the rumors to rest, the more difficult it's going to be to rekindle that relationship.
The road to the left – Red Bull – is currently barred. But it might not stay that way. Horner has gone on record as saying, brilliant though Hamilton is, he does not believe a Vettel-Hamilton pairing would be good for the team. But it probably wouldn't be Horner's call. From a marketing perspective the pairing would be sensational. A megastar dream team, one white, one black, one clever and calculating, the other swashbuckling and dramatic – fighting it out in the fastest car. Red Bull is in F1 for marketing reasons and, as F1's promoter, Bernie Ecclestone would surely love that storyline…
Let's suppose the devil walked over to that locked gate, removed the padlock and the “Road Closed” signs. Should Lewis walk down there? If he did, the lightning forks would be dramatic indeed. But be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. Vettel is not only enormously gifted himself, he is also one very smart cookie.
�� For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the October 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.