For all his ties and history with the McLaren team, Martin Brundle believes that next season could be the best chance for Lewis Hamilton to finally cut the apron strings and look elsewhere for his F1 fix.
The 2008 world champion is currently in the last of a five-year deal with the Woking team, and is stalling on talks of an extension to his contract. While he insists that this is to allow him to concentrate on his position in an extremely close championship race, Hamilton is also known to want certain conditions built in to his next contract - including fewer off-track commitments, more downtime and, obviously, a competitive car - as well a salary to enhance his status as the best in the business [see story here
], knowing that he would also be an attractive target for McLaren's rivals.
Brundle, once a McLaren driver himself before swapping steering wheel for microphone and joining the team at Sky Sports
, confirms that his fellow countryman would not be short of offers should he decide to explore life outside of Woking - even if some of them would certainly ruffle the feathers of his title rivals.
"It's contract negotiation time, but the question is where could he go?" Brundle told Sky Sports News
after the Monaco race weekend where Hamilton only finished fifth, "Mercedes-Benz are starting to go very well and he has a strong relationship with them; Ferrari [is another option], but would [former McLaren team-mate Fernando] Alonso have him there?; [There's] Red Bull, but would [reigning world champion Sebastian] Vettel have Hamilton there - or will Vettel indeed be there given there's talk of him moving to Ferrari?"
McLaren has nurtured Hamilton through his car racing career, picking the Briton up before he was a teenager after he famously approached Ron Dennis at an awards ceremony and announced that he wanted to drive for the Woking team. Impressed not only by his confidence, but obviously by what he saw on track in karting, Dennis took a punt on the youngster, helping him through Formula Renault, F3 and GP2 - winning titles in both the latter two series - before putting him alongside Alonso for 2007. Such was the combination that Hamilton was a title favourite until an error in China set him back, and he ended the season tied for second on points with his team-mate, while Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen won the title.
Although Hamilton took the crown the following season, again after a nail-biting finale in Brazil that initially appeared to have gone the way of Felipe Massa, the Briton has been searching for the top step of the championship podium ever since, having had to watch current team-mate Jenson Button and Red Bull's Vettel share the honours in the past three years.
McLaren started 2012 with a clear edge of its rivals, although Hamilton could only turn pole position in Australia and Malaysia into third place finishes, but, since then, the MP4-27 appears to have lost its advantage, and the Briton remains without a win despite six different drivers having already stood on the top step of the podium this season. Unlike 2011, however, the driver has not been the cause of his own downfall, with 'finger trouble' and strategic decisions having also counted against McLaren - something that Brundle sees as potentially costly when it comes to the team keeping its star.
"He's comfortable at McLaren," the twelve-year F1 veteran accepted, "but will he fancy a bit of fresh oxygen by going somewhere else? I imagine he's weighing that all up at the moment."
While Hamilton infamously made a moon-lit visit to Red Bull's base at last year's Canadian Grand Prix, the team has not expressed much interest in his services while it has Vettel and Monaco winner Mark Webber in place, while Mercedes has to wait on Michael Schumacher's plans before it can be in a position to speculate on possibly reuniting former karting team-mates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Ferrari's Stefano Domenicali, however, has, in the past, revealed that he would be willing to risk the potentially volatile pairing of Hamilton and Alonso if it meant returning the Prancing Horse as a powerhouse [see story here
For all the talk of their acrimonious season at McLaren, the two drivers have become something of a mutual admiration society in recent years, continuing to speak highly of each other over the Monaco weekend and, while Domenicali has also suggested Ferrari's way forward would be with an old hand and a rising star, stranger things have happened....