In the theatrical world of F1, the World Championship is the stage, with all the drivers and teams merely players.
However, over the past few weeks, centre-stage has been occupied by one man, and on 28th September the script of his turbulent career was well and truly re-written. As is the case in any great drama, there is a twist, although it is perhaps not an obvious one.
With Lewis Hamilton exchanging costumes to play the part of a Mercedes driver in 2013, and Sergio Perez being cast as the inexperienced man to take his place at McLaren, most observers would say that the team from Woking is now worse off.
But a different analysis of the implications of each move could just as equally conclude that McLaren have emerged from the affair markedly better-off, in both the short and long term. Seeing as the team have just lost a World Champion, who incidentally is considered by many to be the quickest driver on the planet, some explaining is obviously required.
Those who see McLaren as having lost out are generally those who do not consider Jenson Button to be a ‘Tier One’ driver, maintaining that he is simply not as fast as Hamilton. Admittedly, Button’s operating range is narrower; when the balance of the car isn’t to his liking, he is found wanting in the face of Hamilton’s unerring ability to drag a poor car to heights it shouldn’t logically reach.
However, when Button is presented with a car that handles to his preferences, he can be nigh-on unbeatable. Witness Spa this year, or indeed the entirety of the 2011 season, when the McLaren chassis was better suited to his driving style. The result being that Hamilton was beaten in the points by a teammate for the first time in his career.
Sergio Perez has a driving style similar to Button’s. They are both ‘thinking’ drivers, in that they are not known for their devastating one-lap speed, but for being clever, smooth and ruthlessly efficient.
The Mexican has undoubted talent, and his three podiums for Sauber this season have confirmed to many that he is the most exciting young prospect currently in the sport. At 22, he also has plenty of improvement left in him, and could well be a future world champion.
Indeed there is no reason why he should not be able to challenge next year. But more importantly for McLaren in the short-term, Perez demands the same characteristics from his cars as Button. Both prefer to nurture their tyres, and both are not overly fond of turn-in oversteer.
This means that rather than having to accommodate the chassis design for two very different drivers, the team can take a definitive development route that will allow the car to compliment Button’s driving style. With Perez as a teammate, McLaren will be better equipped to bring the best out of Jenson Button, and with a car that consistently handles to his liking he is unmistakeably world class.
On the business side, Perez brings with him considerable backing from Telmex; McLaren have to pay for their Mercedes engines for the first time next year, and the extra funding will prove useful.
On top of this, the rumoured exit of title sponsor Vodafone means that although Perez is by no means a pay driver – something Martin Whitmarsh was keen to emphasise – his money will undoubtedly ease the pain somewhat if the rumours come to fruition.
As such, if the team maintains a similar performance next year without Lewis Hamilton in the cockpit, then it will further vindicate those who believe that McLaren are also better without the Brit in the long-term.
Of course, Mercedes may also turn out to be a better home for Hamilton than McLaren has been over the past couple of years. Michael Schumacher’s domination would not have occurred had Ross Brawn not been Team Principal at Ferrari in the early 2000s, and Lewis will be hoping to replicate such domination in a new era. If the rumours are true that Mercedes are the team most advanced in the development of the new 2014 engines, then Hamilton’s gamble will begin to look much more astute than many gave him credit for.
In the case of Hamilton, former F1 drivers Damon Hill and David Coulthard are not alone in thinking that his relationship with McLaren has ran its course. As much about personal freedom as potential performance, his move to Mercedes will allow him to grow up, and grow out of the antics that in the last couple of years have affected his performances.
Unfocussed and unruly at times, by all accounts McLaren were simply getting tired of the soap-opera that has arisen around Hamilton. This was further emphasised by Hamilton’s injudicious Twitter outburst last week in which he accused Button of showing a lack of respect by apparently ‘unfollowing’ him, only to end up with pie on his face by apologising an hour later and admitting that he had found out that Button had never been following him in the first place.
This in itself would go some way so sum up the widely perceived lack of harmony between the two teammates. So much like in football when a talismanic player is unsettled, the team may find that with his exit comes a breath of fresh air, and a boost in performance.
Of course, the script of this story is ultimately unfinished, but McLaren’s history is littered with World Champions that have had tremendous success and then moved on.
The team recovered from the losses of Senna and Prost, and they’ll recover from the loss of Hamilton. It took several years on those previous occasions, but the astute decisions made this time round mean that McLaren will still be right at the top of the timesheets in 2013 and in the seasons to come.