Lewis Hamilton could be set to play a crucial role in the McLaren team’s efforts to beat off a bid from arch-rivals Ferrari to persuade one of their major Formula One sponsors to change camps for the 2010 season.

Santander, the Spanish bank which has been sponsoring McLaren to the tune of more than $30m for the past two seasons, has been courted for some months by Ferrari who are anxious to secure extra resources in preparation for the departure of their longtime sponsors Marlboro, the Philip Morris cigarette brand, at the end of next year.

Originally it was thought that Santander had backed McLaren simply because they had signed a Spanish driver in Fernando Alonso and that they were considering a switch to Ferrari  as the double world champion would also be moving to the Italian team. 

However with Ferrari having recently extended Kimi Raikkonen’s contract until the end of 2010 it seems there’s less chance of getting Alonso to Maranello.

At which point, Santander’s recent assault on the UK high street banking scene becomes a factor, and could reassert the promotional advantage strongly in McLaren’s favour.

Over the past year or so, the process of linking Santander and Abbey in the British public's awareness has continued apace,  principally by means of  a high-profile advertising  campaign centring Hamilton and the McLaren F1 squad.

Jeremy Davies, Abbey's Brand and Communications director, has admitted: "When we signed up to sponsor McLaren Mercedes last year, we had no idea of the impact Lewis would make. He's been nothing short of fantastic for us. Awareness of Santander in the UK has shot up from 20 per  cent to 70 per cent, and much of that is down to the Lewis factor."

Abbey is to be entirely re-branded Santander over the next couple of years, as will be the recently-acquired Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley businesses.

In total, Santander faces the challenge of re-branding 1267 British high street branches (706  Abbey branches, 307 Bradford & Bingley branches and 254 Alliance &  Leicester branches).

You have to ask yourself the following question: if you were planning a renewed commercial assault on UK High Street business over the next couple of years, would you want it based around Felipe Massa?  Kimi Raikkonen?  Or Lewis Hamilton?