Lewis Hamilton's gamble on Mercedes could produce nothing but losers

Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton has shone so iridescently in his short career as to suggest he may one day be ranked alongside the greatest of British drivers, Jim Clark. He craves to be compared with his idol, Ayrton Senna.

But this week his role model would appear to be Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls, or perhaps the Cincinnati Kid, for he has just made one of the biggest gambles in the history of Formula One, a plutocratic sport where the rollers and the stakes – like the corn in Oklahoma – are as high as an elephant's eye.

He has looked at the roulette wheel and put everything on silver. He has quit McLaren, a team of proven, habitual winners, and decided to take flight with the Silver Arrows of Mercedes. If he has got this one wrong, he will rue the decision for the next three peak years of his career and probably for the rest of his life.

It would be simplistic to say that he followed the money. Certainly a basic of £15m a year over three years, with the potential to double that, was a factor. But there is too much going on in the still-maturing head of Hamilton to base his verdict on a single issue, assuming his decision had any base to it all.

There was also the strong temptation to break free from the nurturer-mentor that has been McLaren ever since he signed for the team at the age of 13, nearly half his lifetime ago. At 27 there was the excitement of a fresh challenge, a new and ardent lover replacing a stale relationship, the opportunity for Brand Hamilton to flourish with his agents, XIX Entertainment, to become the true celebrity he desperately wants to be, even though the best way to achieve that is by becoming a multiple world champion, instead of the one-off winner he may be remembered as.

But there is still a chance that Hamilton has got it right. Mercedes, as a works team, are well placed to exploit the complicated engine/energy recovery technology that will be unveiled in 2014.

There is, however, no chance that McLaren have got this one right. While Hamilton and his advisers must be worried about the wisdom of his decision, for McLaren there is only the confrontation with disaster.

It was the driver's call, not the team's, but McLaren were culpable. There is every sign that they were too complacent about the dangers before them, dangers that the team principal Martin Whitmarsh dismissed as "fantasy" while stating that his outfit had "no Plan B" in the event of losing their star driver, the biggest box office attraction in this rowdy roundabout.

They appear to have underestimated XIX Entertainment, who have a strong track record when it comes to delivering lucrative contracts. They may have underestimated Mercedes too. The sadness is that Hamilton and McLaren needed each other but like so many symbiotic relationships they failed to recognise their interdependence.

McLaren needed the brilliance of Hamilton to deliver their message of enduring engineering excellence; Hamilton, essentially insecure, needed the size and experience of a big team to reassure him, as well as a car capable of bringing out the best in the quickest, most gifted driver of his generation. Hamilton is good enough to make other great drivers, such as Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, appear ordinary on occasions.

McLaren could have kept Hamilton if they had been smarter. Instead, they were caught cold and then reacted as slowly as Narain Karthikeyan negotiating a hairpin. If they had merely matched the contract that Hamilton signed at Woking five years ago, worth between £13m and £14m a year, it would have been enough for a driver who, deep down, was reluctant to leave, despite the allure of a foreign field.

By the time McLaren did come round to matching their old money, having started off by offering a third less, it was too late, for Hamilton had already started to consider a glittering alternative.

McLaren have made a shrewd signing in Sergio Pérez but Hamilton is simply irreplaceable and it will be interesting to monitor the reactions of the team's sponsors following this gaffe.

Hamilton has a greater chance of redemption but history is likely to conclude that both driver and team betrayed each other; even more starkly, they betrayed themselves.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Weaver, for The Guardian on Friday 28th September 2012 18.07 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010