Naturally there has been a lot of talk the past week or so since it was confirmed Lewis Hamilton was leaving McLaren for Mercedes. Is this a good move for Lewis? Can Mercedes build a winning car? Will it bring him more championships? Why did he leave? Etc.
But there’s been less talk about what this means for McLaren with Hamilton's replacement being confirmed as Sergio Perez. There’s a point I’d just like to make: They no longer have a driver with brilliant one lap pace which could well affect their qualifying performances next season.
Over a single lap it is widely believed that Hamilton is the fastest driver in Formula 1, Jenson Button having struggled to match him in qualifying since they became team-mates in 2010. This season Button has out-qualified Hamilton just three times and two of those were due to grid penalties received by Hamilton in China and Spain when he had been the faster of the two drivers. The third time, Button’s only pole position for McLaren and first in over three years at the Belgian Grand Prix, was down to Button having the better setup on his car (something we know in part thanks to a now infamous tweet…) rather than simply being the faster driver. Only Narain Karthikeyan and Felipe Massa have out-qualified their team-mates less often than Button with Vitaly Petrov and Jean-Eric Vergne also managing it only three times.
Perez has also often found himself behind his team-mate in qualifying albeit not quite as often as Button, Kamui Kobayashi beating him 8-6 on Saturdays so far this season. It’s often been a different story on Sunday with Perez achieving three podiums and outscoring his team-mate but he’s had to make up places to achieve those results. His strength has been the race and sometimes, as in Monza when he failed to reach Q3, helped by the fact he had a free choice of starting tyre and strategy for the race allowing him a different strategy.
It could be argued that qualifying is not as important as it once was with KERS, DRS and Pirelli tyres. And that is correct up to a point, but it still holds an importance. In fourteen Grands Prix so far in 2012 eight (57%) have been won from pole. Qualifying remains vitally important at some tracks such as Monaco where overtaking is extremely difficult. In Monaco Button had one of his worst races of the season thanks largely to being knocked out in Q2. That’s an extreme example, but also think back to the Hungarian Grand Prix back in the summer. Hamilton qualified on pole and having kept the lead at the start was able to hold the faster Lotuses at bay to take victory. Button in contrast qualified 4th, found himself in traffic during the race and could only finish 6th.
There’s also the advantage of drivers being able to better manage their tyres in clean air, something you’re less likely to find if you haven’t qualified on pole.
Hamilton is a driver capable of pulling a spectacular lap out of the bag even if the car doesn’t look to be right on the pace. He’s one of the best qualifiers in F1, perhaps rivalled only by Sebastian Vettel. As good a driver as he is, Button just doesn’t perform in qualifying like Hamilton does. Perez has yet to show he has brilliant one lap pace either. This could potentially cost McLaren in races next year should they find themselves behind their rivals on the second or third row of the grid because their drivers have not been able to find the pace on Saturday. If they have what is clearly the fastest car, as they have had at points this season, it shouldn't be much of a problem. When the McLaren has been dominant Button has been on the front row alongside Hamilton. But if it's close between other teams, an extra couple of tenths from the driver could be crucial and it's something McLaren look like they're going to lack.
As I said before, Hamilton is one of the best qualifiers in Formula 1 so there’s little shame in not being able to beat him over a single lap. Of course, he will also be missed by McLaren in the races but his ability in qualifying, the ability to take the car by the scruff of the neck and squeeze every last tenth out of it, is a big loss.
It will be interesting to see what effect this has on McLaren’s performances next season.