Formula 1's most famous driver made a move that will shake up the entire league. And everyone—fans, team principals, technical directors, television commentators, pit crew members—saw it coming. Today it was announced that Lewis Hamilton, the first black driver to win a Formula 1 Championship, will leave McLaren Mercedes to drive for Mercedes AMG in the 2013 season. The move, which will give the Brit top-billing and a much larger paycheck, may very well be a move he will come to regret.
Lewis Hamilton's unhappiness at McLaren has not been a secret. In June of last year, after teammate Jenson Button took the top podium at the Canadian Grand Prix, Hamilton reportedly walked over to the Red Bull Racing paddock and requested a meeting with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. Imagine if before "The Decision," LeBron walked over to the Miami Heat bench to have a talk with Pat Riley.
Yeah, it was like that.
Contents of the discussion were never made public, but it was apparent then that Hamilton was looking to make a change. All of which is puzzling considering the fact that McLaren has given him a more than capable car and all the support you would expect a team to give a world champion. The ordeal becomes even more puzzling when you consider the history between McLaren and Hamilton.
When Lewis was just a 10-year-old karting prodigy, he approached the team's head Ron Dennis at the 1995 Autosport Awards and told him flatly, "I want to race for you one day." That dream came true in 2007 after he won the 2006 GP2 championship driving for Art Grand Prix. When Juan Pablo Montoya decided to bounce and try his hand at NASCAR, a vacancy at McLaren opened a door for a young Hamilton to shine. In his debut race at the Australian Grand Prix, Hamilton finished third, making him the 13th driver in Formula 1 history to reach the podium in their first race. Things continued to get better in 2008 when, after taking the top spot at the Australian Grand Prix (the first race on the F1 calendar), Hamilton managed to clinch the driver's title by a single point with the MP4-23. So where did it all go wrong?
To be frank, it never did.
McLaren has finished no lower than third place in the team standings since Hamilton joined them in 2007 (discounting the penalty it incurred in '07 after being found guilty of breaching the International Sport Code for stealing secrets from Ferrari). Each year, despite Lewis' complaints of not having a competitive car, McLaren has worked tirelessly to provide a car capable of competing for the top spot. And each year, save for 2008, it has been Lewis that has fallen short. Sure, there were some mistakes on the team's part, like the miscalculation in 2010 at the Malaysian Grand Prix that had Hamilton running on the wrong tires. Or the many pitstop fuck-ups that cost him seconds at Spa. But these are things teams deal with on the day-to-day. Formula 1 is a team sport. And when that team is paying you more than damn near every other driver on the grid, you grin and bear it, and hope for a better Sunday. This is something Lewis has not learned to do. He's the one driver known for running to the press and deflecting blame.
Lewis Hamilton is great. He's one of the greatest, rawest talents to drive an open-top race car since Schumacher was rocking' the colors of Scuderia. But moving to a team that, even under the guidance of the legendary Ross Brawn, has not been able to produce a car capable of producing wins, is an extremely risky move. This places Hamilton in a position in which he has never been. When he makes the move to Mercedes he will be the top driver. The spotlight will once again be shone directly on his helmet. When asked at by the FIA at the this year's Monza Grand Prix what he wanted from a team, Hamilton curtly said, "I want to win." With this move, the onus to win will be squarely on his shoulders. Mercedes' could possibly build a championship-caliber car, but if not, the pressure will still be on him. By going to a less successful team he's doubled down on his own reputation and skill. Now the question is: Can he deliver?