Ferrari is keeping Charles Leclerc from battling for race wins, with a disappointing 2020 car that isn’t tipped to evolve into a thoroughbred this year. George Russell showed his promise in Bahrain last year, but is mired in a Williams again, while McLaren may need more time to adapt to its new Mercedes engine.
Until preseason testing suggests otherwise, only Max Verstappen looks likely to be able to challenge Hamilton in 2021.
A Hamilton/Verstappen title fight would captivate casual and diehard fans, much like the Schumacher/Alonso battles on-track signalled much more than a change of position but rather a changing of the guard.
Come the end of the season, however, it’s hard to see anyone but Hamilton with their hands on the drivers’ trophy.
But then what? Because unlike Schumacher, Hamilton has made no commitment beyond the end of this year, when new regulations come in and the established order goes out of the window.
If Mercedes is going to be toppled, then 2022 is a prime opportunity, just as it was for Schumacher’s successors, who took advantage of a 2005 ban on tyre changes, which hit the Bridgestone-shod Ferrari hard.
Michelin-tyred teams took every victory that season, apart from Schumacher’s sole win at Indianapolis, where all Michelin runners famously withdrew. The following year gave him more opportunity to add to his race win tally, with seven victories, but Alonso still took his second title.
With a one-year deal, Lewis Hamilton doesn’t yet have to commit to F1’s next chapter.
He’s said that he hopes to have a season in the new-generation car and the door seems to be open at Mercedes. But he’ll also be aware that the current order may change.
Not for Hamilton a Räikkönen-like glide to retirement: you just have to remember his frustration when racing a McLaren that was second, or third-best to the Red Bulls, and the 2016 season where Nico Rosberg emerged triumphant.
Will new rules and competitive uncertainty, potentially combined with a record-breaking title haul see Hamilton hand over the baton to F1’s young guns, leaving on a high and avoiding Schumacher’s post-glory years?
Or will he, like the German great, struggle to turn his back on the exhilaration of grand prix racing, and the chance to prove himself against the new generation?