Motorhead: Just what is Hamilton playing at?

Five weeks without a Grand Prix had its upside – Lewis Hamilton managed to steer clear of controversy.

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Hamilton 'never sought lead driver status'
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McLaren Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (Reuters)

Once the drivers were back in action in Belgium, however, normal service has been emphatically resumed.

Hamilton qualified well behind team-mate Jenson Button in Spa, and given that Button has yet to take a pole in his two and a half years at McLaren, Hamilton was unimpressed.

The pair had been handed alternative set-ups, featuring different rear wings. Hamilton’s low downforce ploy cost him, and he didn’t like it at all.

If Hamilton belonged to a different generation, that might be where the frustration ended. But this is 2012, and you reckon that his team’s principal sponsors might have hooked him up with a smartphone.

“Jenson has the new rear wing on, I have the old,” he tweeted. “We voted to change, didn’t work out. I lose 0.4 tenths (of a second) just on the straight”

A whinge is one thing, but Hamilton then went on to attach the telemetry data. It’s fascinating information for fans, but it’s free information for McLaren’s rivals, and in a world where secrets and any advantage over your opposition is key, such material tends to be guarded with the passion of an Opus Dei monk.

Even so, it might have attracted less attention had any of Hamilton’s rivals released the information. The Brit is an unusual position. Even by the standards of high-profile drivers in motorsport’s premier brand, Hamilton’s every word is pounced upon. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to Hamilton, who’s seen off-guard jokes such as “Is it coz I iz is black?” take on a life of their own.

Not that there was any need to twist the 2008 champion’s words, however. You know you’re probably on the wrong side of an argument if even Button, a man who has so far got on better with Hamilton than any of his previous team-mates, is prepared to put his disapproval on the record.

“We work so hard to improve the car and keep things like that secret and private,” said Button. “I didn't want to see it on Twitter. It was the whole telemetry from qualifying. It wasn't just the rear wing. I was very surprised and disappointed."

Can Hamilton afford to isolate his team in this way? The truth, unpalatable to his critics, is that he probably can. Earlier in the season this column considered Hamilton’s options, and suggested that come what may, McLaren and Hamilton were a good fit, and that if push came to shove, the team needs the driver more than the other way around.

That said, unless Michael Schumacher makes way at Mercedes, there’s a dearth of teams who could afford Hamilton and give him a competitive car. Hamilton’s options are not – and will rarely be – so extensive that he’s able to ostracise the team he has been with since the age of 9.

But none of this answers the question of why Hamilton released the sensitive material. It looks, on the face of it, like little more than a moment of ego – a diatribe which shouted ‘No, I’m not slower than Jenson – and here’s the data to prove it’.

It was impetuous, and for a man who has been accused of some hot-headed attacking moves in his time, another reminder that he is still given to moments of immaturity.

Hamilton, technically at least, has just eight contracted races left with McLaren. He's made demands, including keeping his trophies - a luxury no McLaren driver has ever enjoyed - if he is to stay on. If his people are negotiating hard, they need to be doing so from a position of absolute strength. And while he could do nothing to avoid his part in the horror crash that ended his race a corner into the Belgium Grand Prix, he could have avoided this mess.

This is not an unforgivable incident, even within a team who lost their constructors’ championship title and handed a $100m fine in 2007 for their part in a spying row. But it is a misjudgement – and that is something that race drivers cannot afford to make too many of.

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