Will Gray

Gray Matter: Could Hamilton and Mercedes be a good fit?

Will Gray

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As Formula One heads towards its summer break there is pressure on the players in the driver market to plot their moves — but with so much future unpredictability they are facing some tough decisions.

Mark Webber secured his seat at Red Bull Racing on a one-year deal for 2013 last month but there are still question marks over seats at the other three top teams - Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes.

Lewis Hamilton is now the key focus, with his contract at McLaren due for renewal. But while his 'family' bond with the team suggests a switch elsewhere is unlikely, there is plenty to think about in the long-term and right now Hamilton would be well advised to focus on future rather than form as he ponders what could be a crucial next step in his career.

After an early season high, McLaren's advantage was overhauled by their rivals and they hit a go-slow in development as wet weather in several Friday practice sessions delayed the proofing of improvements. Once fully tested, they did ultimately take them back to the front and heading into the break with victory for Hamilton in Hungary could not have been more perfect for the team's position in negotiations. But as F1 has shown this season, things can change quickly.

Hamilton's most open comment so far has been that he wants to keep his real race trophies — and while that seems a minor point, McLaren has historically always kept its drivers' trophies and getting Ron Dennis to part with them in future would be a major coup. Unfortunately, it's this kind of tug-of-war that could break the relationship.

If he did want out, the Red Bull doors are closed and, realistically, so are those at Ferrari (because although Massa's future is questionable, nobody rightly believes he could get on with lining up alongside Fernando Alonso). So Mercedes and Renault are the only front-line options now worth looking at.

McLaren has the combination of performance, professionalism and development pace that a champion demands. Lotus is building, but some say on unstable ground, while Mercedes may currently be on a lower baseline, but could be a slick option in the long-run.

Money will be an issue — not just personal contract money but team finances available to develop a championship-winning car.

On a personal note, a recent McLaren comment that the current global economy means a new contract will not be as lucrative as the last.

On a team level, McLaren is the team with the biggest budget in Hamilton's list but rumours that certain sponsorship deals will end in 2013 will be flashing warning signs at Hamilton, and their funding power could take a dip towards the levels of Mercedes.

But the fact that McLaren no longer lies comfortably in bed with Mercedes as an engine partner, even though they are committed to stay with them through to 2015, could be a bigger issue.

In 2014, a raft of regulation changes will radically change the sport and could significantly change the grid order, depending on who gets the best out of the new package.

Mercedes boss Ross Brawn has showed in the past how capitalising on new regulations can catapult a team to the front. His Brawn outfit came from nowhere to win the world title in 2009 and he and Red Bull boss Adrian Newey are perhaps best placed to make the most from the 2014 regulation re-vamp.

Then, works teams will have a huge advantage, as the engine departments will be able to work closely with the chassis designers to create the optimum package for the new series of components. That means Ferrari and Mercedes, and to a perhaps lesser extent Red Bull (as they are a customer Renault team but have 'factory' status). Not McLaren.

Which puts Hamilton in a difficult position.

Hamilton is clearly McLaren's focus driver — their Vettel, their Alonso — and it's hard to see Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh agreeing to sign their prize talent up on anything other than a long-term deal. Dennis rather arrogantly said recently it is "a question of whether we employ him, not the other way around."

But Hamilton won't see it that way — and while McLaren would be the best place to be in the short-term, a gamble to Mercedes — if the option is available - could be worth it for the long-term opportunity.

Mercedes may have a smaller budget but if Michael Schumacher decides to retire — whether it's his 'decision' or not — they will have a big pot of cash available to lure him in.

Hamilton's team-mate Jenson Button admitted last week it is "sometimes good for you to make that change" before warning against a move — but for both Hamilton and Mercedes it could make great sense, allowing him to bed in for a year at the Silver Arrows and play a part in that development process of the 2014 regulations shake-up.

Mercedes claim they will not consider other options until Schumacher makes his decision — but also said they want an update from the German by the end of the summer break.

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