McLaren Back in Gear After Lewis Hamilton's Decision to Leave

Lewis Hamilton

For McLaren, the past two weeks have been difficult, perhaps even traumatic, in that – for all the attention to detail in Formula One – this is a team that prides itself on ensuring every aspect of racing, on and off the track, is maintained and managed to the highest level. It is part of what makes McLaren McLaren.

Lewis Hamilton's departure was the unexpected, the unplanned – an anomaly on the curve. For an organisation where minutiae is all, this was an old-school spanner in the works. Yet here in Japan there is a very real sense that the storm has been weathered, equanimity restored and, with the furore dying down, there is the chance for everyone in the team to return their focus to the day job and the last six races of a world championship they believe can still be won.

The question of whether Hamilton would stay at the team with whom he grew up had dragged on through the summer. He remained noncommittal and unwilling to discuss the matter, and this week revealed that the team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, had begun asking about renewing the contract as long ago as 2011's race in China.

But there seemed little urgency. McLaren must have thought they would ultimately resolve any issues Hamilton had. Why would he leave a team that can virtually guarantee to provide a car with race-winning potential? Also, where would he go? The only real possibility was Mercedes should Michael Schumacher leave, but with the probability of taking a drive that was clearly off the pace. Yet then McLaren's finely tuned machine met Lewis's spanner and that was exactly what he did.

Speaking in Tokyo for the first time since he announced the move, Hamilton seemed much happier than he has been all season. Mind made up, for him it was a chance to relax and pay attention to the racing.

For his team, who signed Sauber's Sergio Pérez as his replacement, there were questions to be asked internally and answered externally while coping with the fallout, but come Suzuka they too were ready to move on and look to the future.

In Saturday's qualifying – in which Sebastian Vettel took pole but only after a lengthy investigation by race stewards after Ferrari pointed out that he had appeared to block Fernando Alonso – Hamilton struggled with setup problems to qualify only ninth, but felt his return to the office and his close-knit crew, some of whom have been with him since 2007, was an example of how they have done so. "It's been great, it really has been great," he said "It is almost like nothing has happened. We are here to do the job that we have come here to do. I just told them that I wanted them to know I am still massively focused on doing this job until the end."

He also reiterated his determination to win the title, the one absolute he has not had cause to debate all season. "I am focused on this team and helping them win the championship," he insisted. Which is what the team want to hear, at the very least. A title is a title after all, and it would remain McLaren's when Hamilton has gone to Mercedes and indeed, long after he has hung up his gloves.

He will, of course, want it for himself too. Not least because he has also been disarmingly honest this weekend about his chances with Mercedes next year, admitting that for the first time in his F1 career he goes into a season not expecting to win races.

"Absolutely not," he replied when asked if he thought he could win the title in 2013, adding: "Races? I am not even expecting that." Which is a good indicator of the import of his decision, as he would have been made fully aware by Mercedes of expectations for their new car. He confirmed as much. "It's long term. It's 2014-15 when I anticipate we will have most success," he said.

Which is a problem his current team will not face. Hamilton has confirmed several times this weekend that he believes Pérez will be stepping into a very quick McLaren next year and he will, until his switch, have been involved with development of the new car. But even given that, the team are still concentrating on the immediate future.

Whitmarsh acknowledged that the move had a variety of ramifications. "Lewis has been part of the team for many years and I'm sure in every individual there were elements of surprise, elements of disappointment as well as excitement at the idea of working with someone young and fresh like Sergio," he said. But he also believed that now the decision had been made everyone involved could set to the task at hand.

There seems no doubt that McLaren wanted to keep Hamilton and his loss would have been keenly disappointing, but while they cannot have been happy he chose as he did, for Whitmarsh, at least the distraction is over. "He's made a decision and in making that decision I think it occupied a fair bit of energy and thought and time," he said. Now that it had been made: "That proportion of his energy, thought, time can be focused and channelled on each race. He likes winning, we like winning, so we're pretty in line," he concluded.

It seems there is a confluence, then, between team and driver for the remaining races, one that Whitmarsh, who remains committed to fighting for the title, expresses in practical terms succinctly: "We need to continue to develop the car and make it quicker, make sure we've got the reliability and we need to maximise the points that are available to us each weekend. Three things."

In other words, back to the details and business as usual at McLaren.

Powered by article was written by Giles Richards in Tokyo, for The Observer on Saturday 6th October 2012 22.59 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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