Lewis Hamilton may not have impressed McLaren fans with his recent behaviour, leaving the team who nurtured his talent from 11 years old for a bloated deal with rivals Mercedes. But former Formula 1 driver Johnny Herbert insists the move is about more than just money.
“You’ve got to be selfish in motorsport. You have to try and dictate the situation so you get the best for yourself,” he says. At Mercedes Hamilton finally has what he believes he needs: he will be the undisputed number one driver next season.
“Lewis’s idol is Ayrton Senna,” explains Herbert. “When Senna was with McLaren he and Alain Prost were meant to be on an even footing, equal number one drivers – just like Hamilton and Button now.
“But Senna would always try to get more money because that made him feel like the team appreciated him more. He took it as a sign that they valued him over Prost, that they appreciated who he was and what he did for the team. Certain people know that’s how Ayrton operated. I think a little bit of that has rubbed off on Hamilton.
“He’s always spoken about how he doesn’t want to be known as the driver who only won one World Championship. He clearly wants to win more.”
Whether Mercedes can deliver the car that will put Hamilton in a position to win is another matter. Herbert won three Grand Prix in 11 years, but spent many exasperating seasons in cars that did not meet his raw driving talent. He believes Hamilton could come to regret his decision.
“McLaren have been with him since he was 11 years old,” he says. “They’ve always been able to deliver. They’re one of the best at developing the car throughout the season, and they’ve done it once again this year. Ron Dennis [McLaren’s executive chairman] adores him and treats him like his own son. That’s as good a relationship as you can have.”
Mercedes in contrast have not made any significant strides since Jenson Button won the 2009 World Championship when the team raced under the name Brawn. Nico Rosberg’s win in China this year has been Mercedes’ only Grand Prix victory in three seasons.
“You look at the Mercedes side and you have to ask: what else can they offer him?” says Herbert. “Even with the great Michael Schumacher at the helm pushing the team on to World Championships, victories haven’t materialised.”
With six races to go, Hamilton has plenty of time to brood on his choice while still attempting to fight for the Championship with McLaren. It’s only next year that he will find out just how fast Mercedes can be, and whether his gamble has paid off.
“Moving to another place doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get what you want,” warns Herbert. “You might feel happier and freer for a bit, but if you’re not winning races and World Championships, you haven’t achieved the ultimate goal. It can very easily backfire on you.”
Coverage of qualification for the Japanese Grand Prix starts today at 10am on Sky Sports F1, 5:55am on 5 Live Sports Extra, with highlights on BBC1 at 1:00pm.
Sunday’s race begins at 7am with coverage starting at 5:30am on Sky Sports F1, 6:55am on Radio 5 Live, with highlights at 2:05pm on BBC1