The three drivers tried to avoid the big question, but they could not escape without answers.
Sergio Perez, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton shared awkward moment
SUZUKA, JAPAN // Elephants are not native to Japan and yet, yesterday, in the middle of a Formula One media briefing in the rural, central city of Suzuka, a polite pachyderm lingered quietly.
Sergio Perez, the Mexican, happily discussed the elephant in the room, while Jenson Button of McLaren-Mercedes offered a wink and a smile. Lewis Hamilton, in contrast, largely tried his best to ignore it.
This was the first public meeting of the three F1 figures since the revelatory announcement last week that Hamilton will move to Mercedes-GP from 2013 and be replaced by Perez, who will partner Button.
The three men took to their seats at Suzuka International Circuit somewhat awkwardly, settling on an arrangement that saw Perez placed in the centre of the front row; the meat in a McLaren sandwich. His seat could be seen to symbolise his new arrival at the top table, but it was never mentioned.
Instead, as the moderator quickly ran through the motions of asking each of the drivers their thoughts regarding this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix, Button and Perez shared a private joke and Hamilton smiled blankly into the distance.
Answers proved short; all three knew what was coming. And when the floor was finally opened to questions, the elephant was finally addressed.
Hamilton was asked whether, given results over the past few years, he felt an element of risk in going to the German manufacturers, who have triumphed at one grand prix in three seasons.
"No," he replied, adding he was in the room to speak only of the ongoing world championship. "We've got six races ahead in a great team that I've had an incredible journey with. I'm working on trying to finish that on a high."
Perez, 22, proved more helpful. As a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, he was widely expected to move to the Italian team. After securing a third podium in only his second year in the sport, with Sauber, rumours recently intensified. Yet Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president, maintained it was too soon.
McLaren's newest driver explained a move to the Italian marque was never likely: "I'm not proven; I'm not a guarantee like Felipe [Massa] is, so probably that's why I was never an option for them."
Hamilton, in a rare glimpse of genuine joy, revealed he already has an advantage over Perez for next season: he knows the direction of McLaren's car development.
"I know I'm leaving a very, very good car for this guy to step into," the 27-year-old Briton said, prompting his replacement to reply: "Thank you."
"Trust me," Hamilton continued. "It will be a good car next year, I know. I know exactly what's going on next year with your car."
Later, on replacing a world champion, Perez said: "Of course, I rate Lewis as one of the fastest drivers on the grid, so it won't be easy. I have very big shoes to fill, so it will be difficult, but I will give everything I can."
As the conference was drawn to a close, the very big shoes departed, followed by the man looking to fill them and his future teammate. The elephant was nowhere to be seen.
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