Hamilton right to move, say former stars
'Mercedes offer him much greater freedom on the commercial side'
- Lewis Hamilton
Seventeen years after that infamous meeting with Ron Dennis at the Autosport Awards, Lewis Hamilton will turn his back on the team that made him a world champion.
Is it a brave move? Is it stupid? Most importantly; is it the right one?
A ten-year-old Hamilton told then-McLaren team principal Dennis "I want to race for you one day". Three years later he had been signed by the team, and ten years after that he was world champion.
When Hamilton burst on to the Formula One scene in 2007 he was a revelation; beating Fernando Alonso in both a racing and a mental sense in his debut season, and only seeing the world championship agonisingly slip through his grasp at the final round. It so nearly happened again in 2008, but a last corner, last lap move on Timo Glock saw him take the title. At that stage, Hamilton looked set to become a multiple world champion.
Only, it hasn't materialised that way.
McLaren failed to react to the new technical regulations in 2009, with Hamilton's car being woefully uncompetitive in the first half of the season. Two wins late in the season showed the team's development strengths, but it was too little, too late, and Hamilton was unable to mount any kind of defence of his title.
Since then, Hamilton has been frustrated as his undoubted talent has been negated by the prowess of Adrian Newey's pen. Sebastian Vettel has since taken Hamilton's crown as the youngest world champion, and then repeated that success last year as Red Bull has won back-to-back drivers' and constructors' championships.
The problem in each season was McLaren starting the year off the pace. The team - Hamilton included - claimed that if it could start a season with the fastest car then it would be able to outdevelop its rivals. This year, McLaren's MP4-27 gave it that opportunity, but by the middle of the season it had fallen behind and according to Bernie Ecclestone it was at this point he decided to leave.
A 52-point deficit in the standings means Hamilton's chances of winning this year's championship are slim at best. So, in one sense, what has he got to lose by joining Mercedes?
While focus has been on what Hamilton can gain financially by moving, the sporting reasons need to be considered. It's not as cut and dried as the fact that McLaren has won 16 races over the last three seasons and Mercedes just one; it's a new challenge, a fresh start, but there are also familiar faces. Nico Rosberg and Hamilton are firm friends - a description that can't be used for his relationship with Jenson Button - while McLaren has always been powered by Mercedes engines during Hamilton's time in Formula One and Norbert Haug was a big presence in his first three seasons.
In Ross Brawn, Bob Bell, Aldo Costa and Geoff Willis, Mercedes' technical team almost resembles a Formula One version of the Galacticos, and that's exactly what is required when a significant change in regulations is in the pipeline. 2014's new engine regulations could see as big a shift in competitiveness as 2009 did; when Red Bull and a certain Brawn GP came to the fore.
The main men are all in place at Mercedes, and Hamilton is the final piece in the jigsaw. In September of 2008, who would have predicted that McLaren would be so far off the pace in 2009, or Brawn (Honda at that point) so dominant?
Brave? Yes. Stupid? No. The right move? That can only be judged in terms of results come the end of 2014...
Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1