Why McLaren cannot afford to lose Hamilton

Tuesday 21st August 2012, 19:24 by Daniel Chalmers 

Smiles for Hamilton and McLaren as they seek an extended contract? ( McLaren)

McLaren simply cannot afford to lose Lewis Hamilton otherwise their chances of silverware over the next couple of seasons could be seriously dented.

Hamilton is one of the elite group of three drivers alongside Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso who most consider to be the top three drivers in F1. They are the three who can be relied upon to push a car to its limits and often beyond at every single race. They have that something extra.

Lewis is now producing some of the best form we have seen from him for a while. At his best he is one of the most phenomenal talents the sport has ever seen.

He is now entering that time in his career where he should be producing his best performances. McLaren would be foolish to allow him to produce that form for one of their rivals, rather than with them.

The 27-year-old has so far been quick all year and has matured considerably. He is making far less errors. Furthermore he is starting to get the balance right between speed and the need to preserve the Pirelli rubber.

Including the disqualification (which was the team's error) from qualifying in Spain, Lewis has had four pole positions and won two races. That could easily have been three had he kept his pole in Spain - the race was surely his to lose considering his pace that weekend. 

Had that been so, he would have finished ten points ahead of Alonso (had Lewis won and Alonso finished third behind Pastor Maldonado). As it was, he finished 14 points behind the Spaniard. When you combine those two figures he could have been 24 points closer to the Spaniard in the standings just based on that race weekend alone.

Lewis has also endured some bad luck with poor pit stops from his team, and suffered misfortune in Hockenheim when he ran over debris at turn one.

Without McLaren’s mistakes alone Hamilton could and would be right up there with Alonso in the drivers' championship at present.

His only real error so far has been perhaps choosing to defend against Maldonado in Valencia. Other than that he has been faultless.

With Jenson Button struggling with the tyres it's been Hamilton who has been the driving force behind McLaren's title challenge. If Button was the team’s current top scorer then the team would no longer be a real factor in either championship by now. They would only be seventh in the drivers' championship, and a distant fourth in the constructors

If McLaren were to lose Lewis he would be hard to replace. The only two worthy replacements would be the other two members of the elite three: Vettel or Alonso.

Of the best drivers currently in the sport Sebastian told the BBC earlier in the year: "The ones that stand out are probably Fernando, he's one of the most complete drivers. Lewis is very, very quick. There are plenty of others."

After Alonso's brief and troubled stint with McLaren in 2007, there is next to no chance of Fernando returning for a second stint. He has a long term deal with Ferrari which he told this month’s F1 racing magazine will be his last contract in F1.

Whilst Adrian Newey is working for Red Bull it’s hard to see any reason for Vettel to leave. Also if you are to believe the stories doing the rounds at the moment he will be joining Ferrari in 2014.

You can’t rule out the young German one day driving for McLaren, but it's not likely to happen in the short term.

Will Vettel ever replace or partner the man on his right at McLaren?

The only proven driver McLaren could potentially go for is Kimi Raikkonen. However he appears very happy at Lotus, a top team but with less of the demands that he didn't enjoy in the past. It's the perfect fit.

It's also worth considering he will turn 33 in October, an age in which drivers are considered to have passed their peak level of performance. Even so it would still be a strong short term option if necessary and if the Iceman was willing.

Paul Di Resta would probably be the next best shout to replace Lewis. However he is completely unproven at the very top level.

He's done a great job for Force India, but a good performance in a midfield team doesn't always translate to a good performance when joining a top team. It could go the other way of course. The potential is there, but it's a risk especially against the current quality of opposition.

Di Resta is the sort of driver you would want to put alongside Lewis for a couple of years, rather than hiring as a Lewis replacement to immediately fill the void.

Although Button is a very strong driver he can't be relied on as much as Lewis. On a good day when the car is strong and the setup suits him his performance matches the very best in the sport. The second half of 2011 demonstrated that perfectly.

However when the car isn't to his liking his performance suffers dramatically as we have witnessed in 2012. There hasn’t been a season where Button has been on top form for the entire year excluding perhaps 2004 with BAR.

2011 was a brilliant year for Jenson but the second half of the year was much stronger than the first half. In his title year he had some off-days in the second half of the season, but managed to maintain the gap he built at the start of the year when Brawn GP were dominant.

It doesn’t matter what car the team give to Lewis he will drive the wheels off it, even if it is far from perfect. His performances in 2009 are a testament to that.

2009 was a difficult season for Hamilton, but he proved many critics wrong with his strong performances.

He is the one that can consistently take the challenge to Vettel and Alonso over the full duration of a GP season, if he has a car to take the fight to them.

A Di Resta/Button driver partnership would look a little bit short in comparison to Ferrari with Alonso, Red Bull with Vettel and Webber, and then Hamilton at presumably either Lotus or Mercedes.

If we have another season like this one where the teams are so close together (which is likely given stability in the regulations for 2013), driver performance will be a very decisive factor once again. As we have seen in this year’s driver standings the cream rises to the top.

When a team loses a driver to a rival team we often forget how much of a double edged sword the loss is. Not only do you lose the talent and ability of that driver, but they then also turn into one of your opponents.

If Hamilton moved to a rival like Mercedes, not only do McLaren have to cope with losing him, but they then have to try to beat him. On his very best form in a fast car that would be a very formidable task.

The same theory also applies to a top mechanic or designer. When Newey left Williams it was a massive loss. Not only that, but he then became a formidable rival at McLaren.

The affects of the move were clear to see. Williams slipped back as McLaren got significantly stronger. It was no coincidence.

When Michael Schumacher left Benetton for Ferrari taking the likes of Ross Brawn and Rory Bryne with him, Benetton went backwards, and the Maranello squad grew to become a formidable opponent.

As you go back through F1 history there are more examples of this double edged sword.

A new contract with McLaren for 2013 at least, does look likely for Hamilton.

Regarding the contract talks, McLaren’s Jonathan Neale told Sky Sports last week: "We are closer and of course we are in dialogue."

He added: "For obvious reasons I can't speculate more at the moment. We are working very hard to find a common ground."

That quote suggests that there is still some way to go in the contract talks.

If Hamilton wants a bit more money and wants to keep his trophies then McLaren should give it to him. Surely adding some replica driver trophies to the already massive collection of original trophies would be better than a reduction in new additions.

If Lewis only wants a one year contract then McLaren should be very satisfied with that. They get to keep him, and get another chance to persuade him they are the best long term option for him.

Overall it’s McLaren who need Hamilton more than Hamilton needs McLaren. They would be a weaker team without him.

McLaren shouldn't even contemplate losing one of modern F1's most phenomenal talents to one of their main rivals whatever it may cost them to keep him.

You can follow Daniel Chalmers and The F1 Times on Twitter.

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