Wannabe pole-sitters hoping to join Lewis Hamilton at McLaren for 2008, then leapfrog him to the championship, look to be facing disappointment.
McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh has hinted the team may quietly suspend its traditional equality policy next year and make Lewis Hamilton its number one driver in all but name.
And instead of trying to recruit another established star to partner him, Whitmarsh suggested the team will simply promote one of its existing test drivers, Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa or Briton Gary Paffett.
Writing in the official Formula 1 season review yearbook, he admitted that McLaren’s policy of treating its drivers as equals – which caused friction between Hamilton and Fernando Alonso this year – made it harder to win the World Drivers’ Championship.
And although he defended the general application of the policy through the team’s history, in an interview with Autosport magazine he made it clear that Hamilton was already effectively viewed as team leader within McLaren.
Asked by Autosport if Hamilton could be a future leader, he replied: “Let’s be frank, he is already. With the team now, he’s got the confidence, self-belief and knowledge.
“The reality is that Lewis is now an absolutely proven product. He can lead a team and he can be the talisman that can take us to a championship.”
It’s clear, though, that the team isn’t planning to officially abandon the equality policy for all time, despite the ascendancy of Hamilton or the problems of last season.
In the yearbook, he wrote: “It’s been daunting and challenging and that created some ‘interesting’ discussions.
“McLaren, rightly or wrongly, has a policy of equality, and I think people accept that we do a pretty good job of it. This has made our challenges for world championships more difficult.
“A de facto number one is easier and sometimes more efficient, but we believe whoever wins the title should know they won it because they did the best job.”
Nevertheless, his comments to Autosport suggest the team isn’t going out of its way to hunt down a driver who can out-Hamilton Hamilton next year.
“There’s not a lot of difficulty for the team – we already have within the team two very competitive and great drivers in the form of Pedro de la Rosa and Gary Paffett,” he said.
“And we’ve got to find people who are better than them – and that’s not easy. There aren’t many drivers in the world who you could say are materially better than those two, and we’re mindful of the stability that using drivers who are already within the team brings us.
“And we’ll see how it unfolds. Obviously, Fernando will have some impact on the driver market at some point in the future.”
That last comment will give some hope to Heikki Kovalainen, who could easily find himself looking for a job if squeezed out of Renault by an incoming Alonso and the sharp-elbowed Nelson Piquet Jnr.
But, aside from the Finn’s hopes, it would seem that McLaren isn’t actively seeking a queue of external job applicants.
The advantage of choosing de la Rosa as second driver would be that the Spanish sponsors attracted to the team by its signing of Alonso would have a reason to stay with it for at least another year.
The less experienced Paffett would represent more of a gamble – but the same was said of Hamilton before his sensational rookie year and we all know how that one turned out.