Speculation starts early over Hamilton's future
Lewis Hamilton's future was the subject of fevered discussion at the Monaco Grand Prix last weekend as the driver market 'silly season' began in earnest.
Hamilton is out of contract with McLaren at the end of this season and, at 27, his career is at a crossroads, with arguably the most important decision of his life looming.
Hamilton is heading into his prime as a grand prix driver. With good reason, he regards himself as the fastest in the world and it pains him that he has won only one world title so far.
That came in 2008 and it has not escaped Hamilton's attention that since then, at least until the start of this year, McLaren had not provided him with a car that was truly competitive enough.
This season started promisingly, with McLaren locking out the front row at the first two races and Hamilton on pole in both. But since then their form has dipped, particularly in the last three races.
Lewis Hamilton was fifth in the Monaco GP, behind Sebastian Vettel who was fourth. Photo: Getty
Hamilton is still very much in the title race, but he left no-one under any illusions about his feelings after his fifth place in Monaco on Sunday.
It used to be the case that discussions about drivers' futures did not start until July and August. No longer. Teams and drivers will say publicly that it is far too early to discuss it. What they mean is that it is too early to talk about it to the media; behind the scenes a lot is going on.
Hamilton's future is tied up with that of Red Bull's Mark Webber and Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher and also, to some extent, Webber's team-mate Sebastian Vettel.
It is widely believed that all four top teams are interested in Hamilton - at least to the point of holding talks with his management.
McLaren definitely want to keep him and have made that clear to both Hamilton himself and his management team - but no substantive negotiations have taken place and no financial offers made yet, despite reports to the contrary. Mercedes are known to have him seriously on their radar as a potential replacement for Schumacher. The picture at Ferrari and Red Bull is slightly less clear.
There was a rumour going around in Monaco that Ferrari were keen on signing Hamilton for next season in place of Felipe Massa, whose time at the team is expected to end this season.
That seems unlikely for one obvious reason - Fernando Alonso is contracted to Ferrari until the end of 2016. There is huge mutual respect between the two - each regards the other as their biggest rival - but that's very different from wanting to be team-mates again.
When they were at McLaren in Hamilton's debut year in 2007, it did not go well, to put it mildly, and Alonso ended up leaving at the end of the season - just one year into what had been a three-year contract.
Alonso's problem was far more with McLaren boss Ron Dennis than it was with Hamilton. Nevertheless, it is unlikely he would want Hamilton to be his team-mate again - and Ferrari is very much his team these days.
Equally, Hamilton would have to think carefully about moving to a team where he does not speak the language - even if the debriefs are conducted in English and there is an English ex-McLaren technical director - and where a man as clever, cunning and political as Alonso has been ensconced for three years.
Nevertheless, Hamilton would be highly attractive to Ferrari's main sponsors, the cigarette company Philip Morris and Spanish bank Santander, who could drop McLaren if they had an English driver at Ferrari. Together, they could basically afford to pay him whatever he wanted.
The problem with this is that a normally impeccable source close to Ferrari says the team only want a one-year driver in 2013, as they have a pre-contract with Vettel for 2014.
This pre-contract, the source says, is two-way - ie, either party can exercise it - and is performance-related. Ferrari need to be at least third in the constructors' championship at a specific stage of next season to bring it into effect.
However, a senior Red Bull insider says this is "nonsense", that they have Vettel under contract to the end of 2014.
The favourite for the expected vacancy at Ferrari is Webber, who is coming towards the end of his career and may well be interested in a year or two at Ferrari to finish it off.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner asked rhetorically in Monaco: "Why would he want to leave?" But there are several potential reasons.
It would vastly increase Webber's post-F1 earnings potential and he would relish the chance to test himself against Alonso, a friend whom Webber regards as the best driver in the world.
Webber would not expect to beat him - in fact, he would almost certainly have to go to Ferrari on the understanding that Alonso was number one - but he would enjoy ruffling the Spaniard's feathers from time to time, as he almost certainly would.
If Webber were to leave Red Bull, that would leave a vacancy Hamilton could potentially fill.
Horner has always sounded lukewarm about taking on Hamilton, pointing out that it would raise the tension in the team as he and Vettel went toe to toe.
But ultimately it's not his decision - it's that of Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz, and the marketing value of pitting Hamilton against Vettel would be enormous.
And if Webber did leave, who else would Red Bull get? Even if Vettel is under a firm contract to the end of 2014, that's still only two years away - at which point they would still need a guaranteed top-line driver if he left.
Theoretically, Red Bull are committed to progressing their junior drivers, but Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne do not look ready for that sort of promotion yet.
Then there is Mercedes, whose decision is complicated by Schumacher.
Team boss Ross Brawn said in Monaco that he would like the seven-time champion to stay on as long as he is competitive, but there have been internal questions about whether - and how long - he will remain so.
Schumacher's commercial value to Mercedes is huge. But they have to ask themselves whether they are potentially harming their competitive position with their driver line-up - few in F1 would argue they would not improve it by recruiting Hamilton, Alonso or Vettel, who is also of long-term interest to the team.
Hamilton's decision is not just about driving, either. Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes would all almost certainly be able to pay him more than McLaren can afford to offer. And McLaren's portfolio of sponsors makes it almost impossible for Hamilton's team at Simon Fuller's XIX Management to raise money from private deals.
Ultimately, though, Hamilton will surely base his decision on competitiveness.
The best way to guarantee that in the last 20 years has been to drive wherever Adrian Newey is designer, which is Red Bull. Or does Hamilton bank on Mercedes continuing to raise their competitiveness (and, for that matter, staying in F1, which is far from a foregone conclusion at the moment)? Or take a risk on joining Alonso at Ferrari, should a seat be available?
Or does he stick with what he knows and trust the team with which he has been associated since he was 11-years-old to finally get it right, but potentially reduce his earnings potential?
Hamilton has some tough decisions to make in the next few weeks.