Lewis Hamilton leaving McLaren?

Lewis Hamilton is almost certain to sign with McLaren for 2013 and beyond. The young Brit is out of contract at the end of this year but will likely remain with the team that treats him well and consistently delivers competitive machinery. There aren’t any options for Lewis that are distinctly more attractive than his current drive.

However, the assumption that Hamilton couldn’t possibly go anywhere else next year is a reckless one. Nothing is impossible. Even though a switch to a new team is incredibly unlikely, you could happily play devil’s advocate and create a reasonable argument for Lewis joining Ferrari, Red Bull, or Mercedes.

The case for Lewis Hamilton joining Ferrari

Ferrari holds the key to the 2013 driver market as Felipe Massa is seemingly on the way out. As discussed previously on EnterF1.com, Mark Webber and Sergio Perez have been touted as replacements for Massa, but now Lewis Hamilton could also be an outside contender for the seat.

Ferrari tends to prefer a hierarchy amongst its drivers but the ambitious Stefano Domenicali regime at Maranello would find it hard to turn away a proven World Champion.

The idea that Fernando Alonso would block any move by Lewis Hamilton to Ferrari is not entirely fair. In fact, Alonso might actually be thrilled with such an arrangement. Deep down, Fernando believes he can beat Lewis in a straight fight and probably would have in 2007 with a more mature mindset (which he now has). Alonso would have a big advantage over Lewis at Ferrari after three years developing a close bond with the team and would feel confident outperforming Hamilton in red overalls. Fernando might very well relish the chance to seek retribution for 2007 and welcome the challenge. It isn’t reasonable to automatically suggest Hamilton cannot join Ferrari because of Alonso.

From Hamilton’s perspective, Ferrari is the only team with a better track record than McLaren having won a Grand Prix in each of the last 19 Formula One seasons. The guarantee of a competitive car with the biggest brand in world motoring would no doubt have some appeal to Lewis and his management. A Hamilton-Ferrari deal seems like a farfetched suggestion but it isn’t impossible.

The case for Lewis Hamilton joining Red Bull

Ferrari’s 2013 driver line-up will have a big impact on Red Bull if Mark Webber switches camps. Red Bull hasn’t signed a new driver since the team started winning races so promoting their young chargers into the main squad is no longer the default option. Jean Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo would be the favourites for any vacant seat at Red Bull but would not be the only contenders.

Christian Horner has said that he would have “severe reservations” about signing Lewis Hamilton given that “it would be difficult to envisage a driver of Sebastian’s calibre and that of Lewis under the same roof.” However, Hamilton’s presence in the team would certainly help sell a lot more cans of energy drink and that’s Red Bull’s original modus operandi in Formula One. Bringing Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel together would be a massive drawcard for the Red Bull company, which values its exciting youthful brand, and it would undoubtedly be the strongest driver line-up in Formula One. It is an idea with that does little harm to Red Bull.

Lewis would presumably be happy to pair himself with Adrian Newey and might feel confident that he could beat Vettel in the same car given Mark Webber’s relative performances this year. Red Bull would also give Lewis all the freedom in the world to pursue his personal interests away from racing.

Having said that, Red Bull is still built around Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton would be better off joining a top team that has no deep-rooted superstar. One such team exists.

The case for Lewis Hamilton joining Mercedes

Mercedes is another squad with an uncertain line-up for 2013. If Michael Schumacher decides to retire for a second time at the end of this year his departure would create a potential vacancy for Lewis. Even if Schumacher does not want to move on, Mercedes might wish to replace him with Hamilton anyway since the younger World Champion is undoubtedly a better prospect.

Lewis has ties with Mercedes that stretch back to his karting days when he drove in the ‘Mercedes Benz McLaren’ team with Nico Rosberg. Unlike Red Bull or Ferrari, Mercedes would do anything they could to lure Hamilton since they have much more to gain from such a deal. You would imagine that Hamilton’s management could almost write their own contract.

Mercedes currently has two very competent drivers who can win races but it’s hard to consider either of them a superstar (anymore) in the same vein as Alonso, Vettel or Hamilton. Nico Rosberg is now seven years into his F1 career but remains unproven whilst Michael Schumacher is certainly past his best. Signing Lewis Hamilton would be a huge boost Mercedes who might grow to feel their current drivers are a weak link in their performance chain. The German manufacturer has invested a lot in the team’s technical staff with Geoff Willis, Bob Bell, and Aldo Costa joining Ross Brawn so they are not short of talent in the factory. Next year’s car will be the first that restructured team has conceived from start to finish and the new regulations give them a chance to take a big step forwards. The final piece of the all conquering puzzle is a superstar driver with more potential than an ageing Michael Schumacher, and Lewis Hamilton is exactly that.

The case for Lewis Hamilton staying at McLaren

By far and away the most likely outcome for 2013 is that Hamilton will stay at McLaren. Even though a move to Ferrari, Red Bull, or Mercedes might have some advantages, none of them offer a radically better alternative. If Lewis left McLaren he would have to join a team built around another driver or one with a less competitive history. He doesn’t have any need to sign somewhere new.

At McLaren Lewis Hamilton is almost always guaranteed a competitive car and he is very well paid for his duties. Importantly, he is also very well protected. For example, in 2009 McLaren sacked Dave Ryan, their respected Sporting Director, to help protect Lewis from the lie-gate fallout. He wouldn’t get that sort of treatment anywhere else.

One day Lewis Hamilton will probably leave McLaren. He will want to seek a new challenge and will crave new motivation. Winning the World Championship for more than one team is something only eight drivers have ever managed in Grand Prix history and Lewis will want to mark his name amongst the greats. He will certainly want to prove that he is capable of winning races outside of the McLaren shell that has ensconced him for the last 14 years.

Lewis has experienced a few public tensions with McLaren and frequently criticises team decisions over the radio. This suggests his loyalty his not unconditional. His ‘meeting’ with Christian Horner last year – although stage managed and of little substance – was proof that he does not blindly vow to spend his entire racing career at Woking.

A switch to a new team would also refresh Hamilton’s personal ‘brand’ and it is clear this is becoming increasingly important to him and his management.

However, 2013 is not the year Lewis will be seeking to do that. He has a long Formula One career ahead and his current goal is to win another World Championship to ensure 2008 was not a one-off. Once he has achieved all he can at McLaren, Hamilton will quite possibly look to new pastures. That time simply isn’t now.

Then again, nothing is impossible.

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