• Team battling to close gap on Red Bulls
• Hamilton visits McLaren factory in push for progress
Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, is facing up to a double crisis with the British Grand Prix less than two weeks away: the uncompetitive nature of his cars and the unsettled mind of his fastest driver, Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton had another major mood swing on Monday when he dismissed his own gloomy prospects of his chances this season in the wake of his fourth place in Sunday’s European Grand Prix.
It was a more positive Hamilton who posted the following upbeat message on his Twitter account: “To all our supporters, ignore what u read in the papers today. My team will never give up & I WILL NEVER GIVE UP!!!!
“Bring on silverstone, ur support will make a world of difference to us. I’m going to the factory now to do all I can with our team.”
But on Sunday it was Hamilton – not the newspapers – who dismissed his chances of winning a second world title. After finishing 46 seconds behind the winner, Sebastian Vettel, he said: “It’s finished really. In the sense of the championship, it’s almost over already.”
He added: “I’m just being realistic. The fact is there are almost 100 points between me and Sebastian. And they finished 50 seconds or something ahead of us today.
“We can’t beat the Red Bull right now. We just can’t. They would need to fall off the track for me to beat them. There was over a second per lap difference today. That is just ridiculous.”
As for Silverstone, he shrugged: “I’m not looking forward to it, I’m really not looking forward to it.”
Hamilton is probably the finest driver in Formula One, along with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. He is certainly the sport’s most compelling force, its biggest box-office attraction. But in recent weeks his frustrations appear to have disturbed his judgment. He was involved in four crashes in the Monaco and Montreal grands prix and received a fusillade of criticisms from some of the best-known names in the sport.
After the Monaco race he made an astonishing attack on his fellow drivers and the decisions of stewards – even suggesting it was down to the colour of his skin – and followed that up with a impassioned and articulate letter to Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, which got him off a six-race ban.
In the middle of the Montreal race weekend he had an impromptu meeting with the startled team principal of Red Bull, Christian Horner, and then pledged his loyalty to McLaren. With U-turns such as this it is little wonder that the stewards are worried.
Hamilton gets on well with his team-mate Jenson Button. That is not PR spin but the reality. But in one sense Button’s relaxed, easy-going nature and intimately close support group have left Hamilton looking even more edgy and isolated; Hamilton needs close friends and intelligent advice right now.
But Hamilton is not Whitmarsh’s only headache. It was not the fault of Hamilton or Button that they could finish only fourth and sixth respectively on Sunday. Their cars were seriously short of pace.
Being beaten by Red Bull is one thing. But the truth is McLaren, a much bigger organisation with renowned engineering resources, cannot even compete, and that has often been the case since Whitmarsh took charge at Woking in 2009. Red Bull are 89 points ahead of McLaren in the constructors’ championship, and that’s terminal.
Hopes that changes to engine mapping and – at Silverstone – to the blown-diffuser regulations would reduce the gap have largely disappeared.
Whitmarsh is a more popular figure around the team than his more autocratic predecessor, Ron Dennis. But his position is coming under scrutiny and it has not gone unnoticed that Dennis has attended recent races, although with only one world championship since 1999 (Hamilton’s 2008 success) McLaren’s underachievements predate the arrival of Whitmarsh.
In the three races before Valencia there was genuine pace in the McLaren. But the worry on Sunday was that Vettel appeared to be driving well within himself to protect his tyres. And on the evidence of that race McLaren have been overtaken by Ferrari also.