Formula One returned to the famous Imola circuit last weekend for the first time since Michael Schumacher stood on the top step of the podium in 2006. The race weekend played out rather predictably at the front, as Lewis Hamilton secured his 93rd F1 victory.
However, following his triumph, he surprised us all by admitting that he is unsure of his future in the sport. Contract negotiations with Mercedes have yet to take place and there are questions surrounding the future of his team boss Toto Wolff, with whom he has a great relationship.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to be here next year so it’s not a concern for me at the moment,” said the Briton when asked about Wolff’s future.
“I understand and we have a lot of deep conversations, Toto and I, so I’m very, very aware of where he is mentally and we share and carry a lot of the weight together, I think.
“I’ve been here a long, long time. I can definitely understand wanting to pull back a little bit and give more time to family and those things.”
The constructor secured a seventh world title in a row on Sunday, following a one-two result and the DNF of Max Verstappen. The team is now the most dominant in F1 history, but at the heart of those seven titles has been Wolff and Hamilton. Would the team be able to carry on with the same dominant aura as before if both were to leave?
Wolff has announced that he will stay on as team principal for now but that he is actively looking for his successor. Meanwhile, these comments from Hamilton suggest that retirement might be closer than we all initially thought.
While it would still be a major shock to the sport if Hamilton did decide to call it a day, it is still worthwhile wondering what Mercedes would do next if 2020 was to be his final season with the team.
Firstly, the most obvious solution would be to promote George Russell to the top seat. This would be a great success for the Mercedes driver programme. The young British driver is currently in his second season at Williams. He has proven there to have great qualifying pace, he has never been out-qualified by either of his teammates in his time there.
Unfortunately, he has not shown on Sundays that he is capable of racing in an F1 car. A lot of this is to do with the limitations of the Williams car, which consistently finishes at the very back of the grid every race. He has yet to score even a single point in his short F1 career, and it is becoming a problem now that he has gotten himself into a point-scoring position multiple times, only for something to go wrong when the moment finally comes.
On Sunday’s race at Imola this came to a head when Russell was warming up his tyres under the late safety car. Sitting in tenth place, he crashed his car into the wall completely by his own mistake.
It is these kinds of errors that call into question how ready Russell is for the massive step up of moving to the quickest car on the grid. Some more time in the improving Williams team would benefit all parties, or even perhaps a step into a better midfield team would be a wiser choice for Russell’s promising career.
Valterri Bottas would most obviously be the big winner in this scenario. His four seasons with the team would be a massive advantage over Russell’s total lack of experience. The 2021 season would quickly become his best ever chance at chasing a World Drivers Championship.
However, being the best team in F1 also affords Mercedes the luxury of being able to essentially pick up almost any driver they want. If a seat were to open up at the team then there is no doubt that a long line of F1 drivers would be queuing up outside their garage waiting for the chance to jump into the car.
Would a teammate pairing of Bottas and Russell really be extracting the maximum out of the car? As much as F1 is a competition, it is also a form of marketing for the Mercedes brand. Hamilton is one of the biggest names in the sport’s history, if not the biggest. To replace him with a relative rookie would be a missed opportunity to bring in one of the biggest names that would still be active in the sport.
What if Mercedes were to bring in one of the biggest names, while also harming a potential rival to the 2021 title? Max Verstappen has been sensational this season and has been competitive with Bottas all season despite being in an obviously much slower car.
The Dutchman would surely relish the chance at a world title in the best car. And with the uncertainty surrounding Red Bull’s engine following the decision from Honda to pull out from the sport in 2021, the sure thing of Mercedes might be the safer option for Verstappen.
The 23-year old does have a contract until 2023 with the team, but Mercedes could no doubt find a way to wriggle him out of Red Bull. Verstappen is also quick enough that he could be a reasonable threat to the pairing of Bottas and Russell.
However, with Hamilton retiring, this would be Red Bull’s best chance at a title in the hybrid era of F1. If they close the gap between the teams at all, while also bringing in a more reliable second driver, such as Sergio Perez, then we might even see a genuine fight for the constructor’s championship.
This is why Mercedes going for Verstappen would be such a smart move. In an instant it would keep their hand very strong while also significantly weakening a direct rival. If Mercedes could persuade Verstappen to jump ship then Russell would simply have to wait another year or two before replacing Bottas.
Potentially, Verstappen might not be convinced to defect and might stick with Red Bull if he believes they can deliver a championship winning car. Meanwhile, Mercedes themselves might not be convinced that Russell is ready for such a massive jump up to go from the slowest car to the quickest. This leaves the option of going with a short-term fix.
The previously mentioned Perez or Nico Hulkenberg are both without a drive for next season. Both are shopping themselves out for moves, with Perez having already been closely linked to Williams before they announced they weren’t looking to change drivers last week.
Red Bull look likely to change their second driver, leaving Alex Albon out in the cold, but could both these former Force India teammates end up in rival cars at the front of the grid next season? Hulkenberg was considered for the role when Nico Rosberg announced his retirement in 2016.
By the time next season is scheduled to get under way, they will be 31 and 33-years old respectively. Neither have won a race in their F1 careers and Hulkenberg has notoriously never even finished on the podium. However, their vast experience would make them better one-season options for Mercedes than Russell.
Given the regulation changes coming into effect in 2022, there is no guarantee who will be out in front when the lights go out to start that season. There is always the chance that someone like Ferrari or Renault show up having figured out the new rules better than anyone else and thus the coveted Mercedes seat won’t be as enticing as it is now.
If Hamilton is to call it quits, then now would surely be the preferred time for Mercedes. Bringing in a new driver when you’re at the top is much easier than when you’re simply in the chasing pack.
If that seat is to open up in the coming weeks then there is also the unlikely possibility that Mercedes throw their money at a driver who already has a contract for next season with a new team. Perhaps Daniel Ricciardo could be persuaded to eat the cost of ripping up his contract with McLaren for a chance at a championship winning car. Or maybe even Sebastian Vettel, who is on course to drive for Aston Martin next season, might even be convinced to move to the German outfit.
We have already seen this season that contracts mean very little in F1 when money is involved. Perez was under contract with Racing Point until 2022 but is now without a seat for 2021 after they replaced him with Vettel. F1 can be a cruel sport in that way, but when the desire and money is there then anything is possible.
However, it would still be a very big surprise for Hamilton to announce his retirement from F1. He is now just a race or two away from equalling Schumacher’s number of world titles and, with Mercedes’ current advantage over the rest of the field, it is easy to see Hamilton becoming an eight time champion come the end of 2021, which would be a far more appropriate time to hang up his helmet if he is so inclined.
Never say never in F1, but in all likelihood Hamilton will have plenty of time to add to his 93 race victories.