Hamilton and McLaren: should he stay or should he go?

The rumours just refuse to go away – will 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton leave McLaren for Red Bull Racing for next season? The saga continues, but all the ins and outs of a possible move must be playing on the Englishman’s mind as he heads into the British Grand Prix weekend. Forumula1.com’s Hugh Podmore looks at the pros and cons for Hamilton of swapping Woking for Milton Keynes.

It’s easy to see why Hamilton may be contemplating a switch. He has endured a torrid time of late, with only one win so far this year. His driving style and motivation has been questioned and he has been the subject of much paddock debate. But what must have hurt more than anything is seeing that Red Bull car, driven by a man Hamilton no doubt regards as his (slight) inferior in terms of outright pace, swanning off into the distance on all too many occasions.

F1 drivers always want the best car, but what must be playing on Hamilton’s mind is that the best drivers get themselves into the best cars. They may have to play dirty – think about the shenanigans between Mansell, Prost and Senna for the Williams seat in the early 1990s – but they realise that their value as a driver diminishes every time they don’t win. Not enough, for them, the aficionados’ appreciation of their battling a dog of a car: no, these drivers want to win, plain and simple. And there is no doubt that Red Bull are winning at the moment.

And McLaren, if we face it, are not. To be honest they have not looked in championship for a while, and despite the superb rearguard action the team performed post-winter testing to make sure the car could come second at least, it does not look like overtaking the Red Bull any time soon. If Valencia is taken as a measure, then Ferrari may even be bettering the chrome machines before long. You have to go back to 2008 to find a McLaren car that was capable of winning the world championship, and that seems like a long time for Lewis Hamilton. Will they rediscover their taste for glory? Probably. But the question Hamilton will be asking is when, exactly. Because perhaps he has only another five or six years at the very top of his game.

So what would the Stevenage man find if he took Mark Webber’s seat next year? He would no doubt have a car capable of winning, designed by the best in the business, Adrian Newey, and a team environment that would suit what might be called his penchant for glamour. Money would not be a problem – many observers with a far better grasp of PR than your correspondent say that Dietrich Mateschitz should see Hamilton as the dream man to sell his drink, and should shell out for his services accordingly. What’s more, word has it that Hamilton, like many others before him, finds the obligations of being a McLaren driver onerous and the ambience a little stuffy. No such demands are placed on either Vettel at Red Bull or Alonso at Ferrari. Those two, quite probably, are the only men Hamilton really regards as his peers.

And therein lies the rub. Across the garage sits the baby-faced assassin, in a car he knows inside out to the point where he has personalised it by naming it, not to mention its older sisters. This Vettel is the darling of the team, the man who brought them glory for two years straight, more or less. Mark Webber might tell you, Mr Hamilton, precisely how much shrift equality and fairness is given in the team if you are too near Vettel’s pace. Arguably, that is. On the surface, all is theoretically equal. But even in minutely-checked detail, who is to say Hamilton would definitely beat Vettel in the same car?

And the negatives go on. There are no guarantees in F1, Lewis, and Jenson Button will tell you that the momentum swings from year to year in terms of car performance. After all, he bought himself out of going back to Williams when it looked like Honda could come good. So while the Red Bull looks like a good bet now, you will look a bit silly if you’ve burned all your bridges with McLaren and they produce a great car next year, while Mr Newey’s latest creation has malfunctioning KERS and confused exhausts.

Burning those bridges with McLaren may not be wise, either. They are a huge team, part of the fabric of the sport in a way only Ferrari can match. They also nurtured Hamilton, gave him the tools he needed to become world champion, shared in his glory and protected him at his lower points. He may consider, too, that to take a team back to the top is all the sweeter than strolling into the best seat in the house, and that winning again with McLaren would be a real achievement. It is something that Alonso could not do at Renault, that Mansell could not do at Ferrari, that Schumacher cannot do at Mercedes.

If I were Lewis Hamilton I would investigate the possibility of a two-year contract at Red Bull, at the same time being very courteous and proper with McLaren. The theoretically temporary end of a relationship with the Woking team does not have to be painful, and there could be a suggestion that the prodigal son will return. He would have to be very careful not to look mercenary, though, nor patronising of Red Bull Racing.

But then maybe I just want to see Vettel against Hamilton in the best car.