Lewis Hamilton's relationship with McLaren may have changed forever after last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, which was won by his team-mate, Jenson Button. After taking advantage of a blocking move on Button by Sebastian Vettel to move around Button for second place, Hamilton had to pit early with a slow puncture on the eighth lap and later had his fourth collision of the season with the Ferrari driver Felipe Massa en route to fifth place.
While the on-form Button was fêted for beating Red Bull fair and square on a track that historically favours the cars from Milton Keynes, and savoured his third victory of the year, Hamilton is said to have fumed quietly before exploding. Button lies second behind Vettel, whose third place in Suzuka was sufficient to cement his back-to-back world titles; Hamilton is only fifth, with 178 points to Button's 210.
While the latter is driving better than ever and winning all the plaudits for his smooth and unruffled style, both on and off the track, Hamilton has been struggling through a poor spell, which saw him crash out in Belgium after hitting Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber and collide with Massa in both Singaporeand Japan.
There is talk among McLaren insiders of words being said in the aftermath of Suzuka that cannot be taken back, and while Button is riding the crest of his wave with calm reassurance, Hamilton's body language suggests a driver intent on removing himself from social niceties and focusing solely on getting the job done this weekend.
Racing can be a cutthroat game, and just as this week's victim of an incident can be next week's villain, so you only tend to be as good as your last race in the media's – and some team managements' – eyes. Hamilton knows this, and is desperate for a strong run to victory here to turn his fortunes around at a stroke. In practice on Friday he stamped his authority with the fastest time, a 10th of a second quicker than Button and way ahead of the rest, then took a brilliant pole position after finding two 10ths of a second rather than the one he had been told he needed. But he knows he must deliver today to shake the monkey off his back.
Despite the alleged frictions McLaren pledged to support their man, and the managing director, Jonathan Neale, has made it clear there remains a high level of support for him and understanding of the problems which have kept him off the podium since he won in Germany in July.
"Lewis's biggest critic is himself," Neale said. "He desperately wants to win and he's understandably not happy when his team-mate beats him, or somebody else is winning the race or the championship. He has seen this championship slide away to Red Bull. He's tough on himself and he's massively disappointed. We'd be disappointed if he didn't feel that as well.
"He is a phenomenal driver. He has had 16 race wins. He's constantly exciting on the circuit, always in the action, and we love him for that. I'm concerned to make sure he feels and understands that we're 100 per cent behind him, and this team certainly are. The workforce here love everything about Lewis Hamilton."
Neale pointed out that the England rugby team had been on the receiving end of professional sport's blunt brutality, and added: "One of the journalists there wrote that it's a sport where the winners are deified and the losers are vilified. We can all turn round and say, 'Where's Lewis?' but the reality is that he's a really quick driver. He's a really nice guy and he puts his heart and everything into it."
"This is probably one of the first positives I've had for a while and being back on pole is a great feeling," Hamilton said, almost wistfully, adding tellingly: "I'm proud of my team. I've had some difficult races, so I'll be trying to redeem myself tomorrow."
As Button seems to get better and better, Hamilton needs a strong result to reboot his career. No one at McLaren doubts he has the talent to do the job, but how the next four races pan out could be crucial to his long-term future with the team who have nurtured him since he was a kid in karting.