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?
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.