EXCLUSIVE: Hamilton: It's the hardest decision I've made, but I'm leaving McLaren to grow up
22:45 GMT, 8 December 2012
Lewis Hamilton walked out of the McLaren headquarters on Friday after delivering a heartfelt and candid farewell speech to the workforce who supported his journey to Formula One stardom.
Hamilton's relationship may have soured with McLaren chairman Ron Dennis, the man who bankrolled him for 14 years from his childhood days as a karting prodigy, but he relished the opportunity to explain personally why he has chosen to drive for Mercedes from next year.
'It was the hardest decision I've ever made,' admitted Hamilton, granted a dignified departure by McLaren, a rare privilege in a sport renowned for being heartless when drivers switch allegiance.
Heavy heart: Lewis Hamilton said he is leaving McLaren to grow up
Yet it was the right moment, insisted Hamilton, for him to explore life beyond the boundaries of McLaren.
'It is to do with the process of growing up, of leaving home,' he said. 'That's why I am taking the next step, to grow as a driver and as a human being.'
Yet Hamilton, who was leading his last race for McLaren in Brazil a fortnight ago when he was driven off the circuit by Nico Hulkenberg, acknowledged the inherent risk he has accepted by signing for Mercedes, a team with one win in three seasons.
'The team I'm joining isn't yet performing well,' he said. 'But I hope I'll be able to help them get where they want to be.'
See you next year… Hamilton will drive for Mercedes
Hamilton has been lured from McLaren to Mercedes by more than the simple economics of a threeyear contract worth 60million.
He is attracted by the challenge of attempting to become the catalyst for the Mercedes team's development – and future success – under Englishman Ross Brawn, who worked a similar alchemy with Michael Schumacher during their time together, first with Benetton, then with Ferrari. Hamilton is banking on Brawn – and Mercedes – making capital gains when new 1.4 turbo engines are introduced to Formula One for the 2014 season.
Importantly, Hamilton also wants to be freed of the influence of Dennis, which in recent years has become claustrophobic. Dennis similarly fell out with Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, although all of them would testify to the brilliance of his leadership and vision for McLaren.
So long: Hamilton's now former team-mate Jenson Button hugged him after his final race at McLaren
One last go: Hamilton and Button were side by side in Sao Paulo
Hamilton enjoyed his working relationship with Martin Whitmarsh, who succeeded Dennis as McLaren team principal, but during his contract negotiations this summer the 27-year-old British star realised that he needed a fresh start.
Dennis is believed to have been bitterly disappointed – and his relationship with Hamilton was irrevocably damaged. At least Hamilton and Dennis, who achieved so much with one another, held a private, convivial chat on Friday.
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Going and gone: Hamilton is looking forward to his new challenge
'When I arrived in Formula 1 in 2007, I now realise I never really grasped what I was taking on. Ron [Dennis] had told me: “Don't be surprised if you're 0.5sec slower than Fernando [Alonso]”, and I just smiled because I knew it wouldn't be the case. But, even so, that year was very hard, for many reasons.
'The following year, 2008, as a result of so much hard work from all of you, we won the championship. Thanks so much. You were brilliant – you still are. I have so much affection and love for this team. And that's why McLaren has always felt like home.'
As a parting gift, Hamilton received a three-foot model of his 2008 McLaren. 'Maybe I'll come back one day… if you'll have me,' he said, his voice heavy with emotion.
A champagne toast was offered in Hamilton's honour and he will not forget the standing ovation he was given as he walked away from McLaren's plush HQ in the Surrey stockbroker belt.