What will Lewis do next?

Hamilton’s 15th F1 season may well be the end of an era, whether the world champion wins a record eighth title or not. Mark Hughes weighs up the competition for the two seats at Mercedes and reveals why the future is bright for another Brit

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It has lasted for a very long time, the Lewis Hamilton era of F1, a whirl of wheels and sunshine. But all successes come to an end some day. At 36, going into his 15th season of F1, Hamilton is gunning for that record-breaking eighth title. But maybe not as intensely as you might imagine, if his pre-season words are to be taken at face value. “I think I have made a real important decision in my mind that I don’t want that [eighth title] to be the deciding factor. I got into racing because I loved racing and I think that has got to be always at the core of what I do. If I don’t love racing and if all you are going for is accolades and world titles, I feel I could potentially lose my way. Of course, it is the ultimate dream but I don’t think necessarily it will be the deciding factor for if I stay on and keep going. I think it is more when I put that helmet on, I still have that smile when I leave the garage.”

As we head into the new season, are we looking at the end of an era? And if so, what comes after that?

In terms of the physical skills required for the sport, Hamilton could likely go on for years yet and continue extending his own record of success. But he’s clearly not preoccupied with records, now he has set the bar. So what would it take to keep that smile on his face as he departs the garage?

It’s probably more than just his immediate environment and the competitiveness of his car. He’s approaching something of a crossroads in his life. His profile lends his words and actions enormous weight – something he has become more aware of in the last couple of years and which has emboldened him to stand up and make his voice heard on issues way bigger than motor racing. Using the profile that racing has given him, the shape of his post-driving career is becoming more tangible: campaigner, diversity ambassador, a celebrity mover and shaker on issues close to his heart. Quite possibly in co-operation with Mercedes.   

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How long does Hamilton want to go on for? It’s a question Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen will be asking

“What you saw in Austria for example with a young black girl on the podium for the first time in 70 years,” he points out. “That created an awareness in particular for young black girls and girls in general saw that it is a real possibility to become an engineer. Sparking those reactions. For example, Mercedes is now partnering with some schools in London and putting attention elsewhere and creating a bigger pool and a bigger opportunity to get into those STEM [science, technology, engineering, maths] subjects which perhaps wasn’t previously done.

“What I am not aware of is any other team doing that or acknowledging that it is even an issue and those are things that need to change this year. It goes back to that accountability; we can all do more.

“A lot of brands that we work with sell cars to people from all different backgrounds and make their money from people from the outside world. I feel like from inside, it needs to reflect the outside world.

“I’m very proud of Mercedes for being open-minded to change. Really not just taking the smallest of steps, but really taking a step and seeing what we can do. We’ve done a deep dive into what we can do here. For them to be open to putting a [Lewis Hamilton] Foundation together and putting some money towards pushing for systematic change within our organisation, I think is fantastic. If we do what we’re planning to do, I think we’re going to create and open up pathways for young minorities to get into those STEM subjects. I’m hopeful that in the future we see it just being more diverse. Because it just works out better for everyone.”

George Russell in MErcedes race suit at the 2020 Sakhir Grand prix

George Russell seems a Mercedes F1 certainty

Tolga Bozoglu/Getty Images

This doesn’t necessarily mean he will stop racing at the end of his current one-year contract, but you have to wonder. “I’m kind of in a fortunate position where I’ve achieved most of the stuff that I’ve wanted to achieve up to this point. So there’s no real need necessarily to plan too far ahead in the future. I think we live in quite an unusual period of time in life, and I just wanted one year. Then we can talk about if we do more, and keep adding to it if we have to.”

If we have to… Mmm. So if a retired but campaigning Hamilton was working in association with Mercedes off-track, what would the team do on it? There are three drivers in the frame for what would be two available seats: Valtteri Bottas, George Russell and Max Verstappen. Verstappen – who has been linked on and off with the team since even before his debut in Formula 1 – is the longest shot, as technically he’s under Red Bull contract until the end of 2023. But this is F1 and things can happen. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has confirmed there is a break clause in the contract whereby if a certain performance criterion is not met, he could be free to move.   

“As with all these things, to force a driver who doesn’t want to be there, it’s more about relationships than contracts,” says Horner. “You only pull a contract out of a drawer when you’ve got a problem, in my experience.”

The chance to slot into Hamilton’s seat at Mercedes might constitute just such ‘a problem’ for Red Bull. In many ways the Dutchman, 13 years Hamilton’s junior, is the obvious king in waiting, a driver of immense speed and aggression who has been operating at an exceptionally high level for several seasons – whose CV vastly undersells his ability, who would undoubtedly already be a multiple world champion if the Red Bull team he joined in 2016 was at the level of the pre-hybrid days.

An average of just two victories per season in his five years with the team has got to be a frustration to a competitor confident he could go wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton. The loss of Honda’s partnership at the end of this season is just one more concern about the team’s prospects. His best career years are in danger of passing him by and regardless of his closeness with the Milton Keynes team, he may feel obliged to take the Mercedes seat should it become available. “At the end of the day I don’t know what Lewis is going to do,” Verstappen said at the launch of Red Bull’s 2021 car. “I just focus on myself and I’m very focused on this year and trying to make it a success. It’s still early in the season for those kind of things. I’m not really thinking about it at this stage.” Hardly a resounding dismissal of the idea…

At the launch of the new Mercedes W12, Bottas seemed resigned that this could be his last season in a title-contending car. With the sensational performance of George Russell as Hamilton’s stand-in at the Sakhir Grand Prix last year, it’s easy to see why Bottas may be feeling a little insecure about his long-term future with the team regardless of Hamilton’s plans. Russell, despite no prior seat time in the car, even in the simulator, despite not fitting the cockpit properly, lost out on pole to Bottas by mere hundredths of a second prior to out-performing him in the race. But for an inopportunely timed safety car and a tyre mix-up in the Mercedes pitlane, he was all set to have won the race unchallenged.

Even after being forced to stop again to have the correct tyres fitted, he was able to make an aggressive pass on Bottas and might even have still won but for a subsequent puncture. It was a brilliant show of strength, one which Bottas acknowledged made him look bad.

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Some believe Hamilton’s political stance has made his name more famous than the sport itself, but the driver is now aware that when he speaks, people listen

“The ultimate goal for me this season when I get to the last race in Abu Dhabi [December 12] is that I can look back and say that I did 100%, I did every single bit that I could to win the title,” says Bottas. “That’s the goal for this year. That is going to be the same for all the people around me, whoever I’m working with. I’ll demand as much as I feel like I need to, to get the support and get the information that I need, and maybe that way, I can be a bit more selfish. One year in a lifetime, giving everything that you have, is actually quite a short time.”

It has the sound of Bottas looking at this season as maybe his last opportunity. Russell, whose career has been supported by Mercedes and who, prior to his contract with Williams, was an intrinsic part of the team, working in the simulator, sitting in on debriefs, is in the final year of that Williams contract.

“The future is very bright for George,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff recently. “He does not need to be concerned. He will definitely play a role in our future line-up. He just has to have trust and patience. Today we are concentrating on our two drivers, Valtteri and Lewis. This is our regular team. We will see what the future brings.”

“Toto has always given me his word, and always given me the opportunity when he believes I deserve it,” says Russell. “They have told me I am part of that future, and whenever that may be in their car again is when they believe the time is right. A lot of people think next year is the natural path. But equally things change very quickly in motor sport, especially in Formula 1. I had a taste of life at the front of the grid last year but I am just focused on the here and now.”

How this threesome of drivers fit into the Mercedes 2022 plan depends entirely upon what Hamilton decides to do. If he continues, the expectation is that Russell would slot into Bottas’ seat alongside. That overlap between Hamilton and Russell would at least give the team continuity when Hamilton does eventually stop at some later date. If Hamilton retires at the end of ’21, then Bottas possibly gets the reprieve of another one-year contract – alongside Russell. But if Hamilton retires and Verstappen is somehow available and willing, it’s difficult to see how there would be a place for Bottas, and we could be looking at a Verstappen/Russell line-up. There would be no continuity in that case, but if a team is going to change both drivers, 2022 is probably the best year to do it, as the radical all-new regulations for sidepod venturi cars make it a clean-sheet new era, with no link at all to the current cars beyond the power units. It sounds as though Bottas may even have discussed this logic with the team.

“I get it,” he says. “I kind of get it, if the team has the opportunity for the big change [of regulations] coming in 2022, to have options, to choose both of their drivers, I think it’s good for the team. But honestly, from my side, no rush really. I’m just full gas for the season and trying to get to my goals.”

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Is the motivation there for further titles? Hamilton is adamant he’s not driven by records and stats alone

After his performances in Sakhir last year Russell said: “Hopefully I’ve made the decision for Toto more difficult for 2022 or maybe even sooner.” Obviously that ’21 possibility didn’t come to be. But just as Williams quite rightly demanded a significant sum from Mercedes to make Russell available to be Hamilton’s stand-in, so it’s believed it put a big price on him if Mercedes wanted him for this year. Given that he becomes contractually free at the end of the year anyway, it probably seemed an indulgent spend for Wolff.

But of the four drivers, the one with the biggest probability of being in a Mercedes next year is actually Russell. It’s very difficult to envisage a scenario in which he does not take the seat that’s long seemed his destiny. The question is whether he is competing against Hamilton, Verstappen or Bottas as a team-mate. That is largely in Hamilton’s hands.

“It’s not like it’s my first rodeo,” says the world champion. “I think I’ve been in this position where at least I’ve been asked the question for a period of time. I don’t really feel pressured in that sense.

“Naturally, I continue to have huge belief in and always bet on myself, in terms of I know what it takes to deliver. I think I have an extraordinary relationship with Mercedes that’s incredibly deep, and I think there’s more than just racing that we will probably end up doing together.

“As you’ve seen, with this Foundation, there’s a lot of great things that we will do moving forwards. So that will be a constant discussion through the year, I’m sure. In terms of whether this is the road I want to continue down? It will come to me, I’m sure.”

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Mulberry Schools Trust has partnered with Mercedes as part of a new STEM academy

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