Saturday, October 16News That Matters

Is this Lewis Hamilton’s final lap in Formula One ahead of Bahrain opener?

There may only be one act of genius left in the kaleidoscopic career of Lewis Hamilton — a final flourish and a parting gift wrapped together.

This weekend in the Bahrain twilight the most successful driver Formula One has known will begin his 15th season aiming for an unprecedented eighth title and yet with his future employment status unknown.

The campaign promises to be a thrilling test of his enduring skill because the Red Bull in the hands of 23-year-old Max Verstappen seems to hold a slight speed advantage. The torpor of Hamilton’s routine victories of recent years — which made mowing the lawn a more exciting Sunday pursuit — is likely to be shaken up.

Lewis Hamilton could be set for a final season in F1 as he bids to win an eighth championship

Lewis Hamilton could be set for a final season in F1 as he bids to win an eighth championship

Lewis Hamilton could be set for a final season in F1 as he bids to win an eighth championship

While a wheel-to-wheel fight is a tantalising prospect for the public, and balm for the sport, Hamilton comes to the doors of the new season conflicted on several fronts.

Actually, during his media sessions here he has been cheery, reflective, relaxed. He adopted a new approach in saying hello by name to each questioner. He also insisted that he had no plans to retire and expounded on human rights issues in the region, as if he had just discovered them.

No doubt the thrill of being back in the cockpit for the resumption of hostilities has wiped away some of the fog that penetrated his mind over the last few months and may yet turn out to have pushed him closer to retirement.

‘Grumpy’ was the word Martin Brundle used to describe the world champion’s mood soon after signing his new, one-year contract. Hamilton certainly gave the impression that he was less than thrilled with his terms. But the root of his disquiet came here in the tiny Gulf kingdom in December.

Hamilton gave the impression that he was less than thrilled with his new Mercedes terms

Hamilton gave the impression that he was less than thrilled with his new Mercedes terms

Hamilton gave the impression that he was less than thrilled with his new Mercedes terms

Hamilton is aiming to break more records and insists he has no plans to retire any time soon

Hamilton is aiming to break more records and insists he has no plans to retire any time soon

Hamilton is aiming to break more records and insists he has no plans to retire any time soon

Laid up with Covid, he was replaced by George Russell, drafted in from Williams, for the Sakhir Grand Prix. 

As history records, Russell drove superbly in a car he did not know, and would have won but for the cruellest of ill-luck.

Hamilton watched on from his sickbed, rattled. He was annoyed that Toto Wolff, his team principal, had undermined him by picking Russell rather than reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne, who was unlikely to have caused such a sandstorm.

Hamilton felt undermined by team boss Toto Wolff (right) at the Sakhir GP last season

Hamilton felt undermined by team boss Toto Wolff (right) at the Sakhir GP last season

Hamilton felt undermined by team boss Toto Wolff (right) at the Sakhir GP last season

The seven-time champion was irked by the decision to pick George Russell (above) to replace him after he tested positive for Covid rather than reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne

The seven-time champion was irked by the decision to pick George Russell (above) to replace him after he tested positive for Covid rather than reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne

The seven-time champion was irked by the decision to pick George Russell (above) to replace him after he tested positive for Covid rather than reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne

As John Watson, ex-driver and Formula One grandee, said: ‘Lewis must have thought, “Here I am suffering the effects of Covid, I’ve just won my seventh world title, and everyone’s talking about George Russell”.

‘There was an element of humiliation, certainly a feeling of not being respected. The commentary demeaned what Lewis had done, or at least it did in his head. From that moment to this, my intuition has told me that this is likely to be his last year. It upset his equilibrium.’

It is difficult to believe that Russell’s call-up was not part of Wolff’s negotiating strategy, a way of showing Hamilton that he was not quite as indispensable as his pay demands of £40million suggested he thought himself to be.

And with Verstappen believed to be available at the end of this year, courtesy of a release clause, Wolff clearly wants to keep his options open, aware that Hamilton’s age, 37 next birthday, means a rejuvenation of the team cannot be long delayed. Time is the curse of every competitor. One moment they are Mr Big; next they are Mr Yesterday.

Further clouding Hamilton’s mind is the loss a few weeks ago of his right-hand man Marc Hynes’ services. A regular at races, Hynes was Hamilton’s gate-keeper as well as chief executive of his management company, Project 44.

Hamilton says Hynes ‘remains one of my best friends’, adding: ‘I’m doing some small restructuring now and ultimately there are plans we are working on for the future. So there will be someone coming in potentially short-term and I’ll figure it out as I go along.’ 

Mercedes have reportedly already been in talks with Max Verstappen (L) to replace Hamilton

Mercedes have reportedly already been in talks with Max Verstappen (L) to replace Hamilton

Mercedes have reportedly already been in talks with Max Verstappen (L) to replace Hamilton

Thankfully his trainer, New Zealander Angela Cullen, is still in place. Losing her would have been like severing a limb.

On Friday in both practice sessions, Verstappen set the pace, powered by his super-strong Honda engine. Hamilton was two-tenths back. 

It had echoes of testing, when in an unstable car, the Briton spun off twice — occurrences as common as Halley’s Comet sightings.

But we are still talking about Hamilton, a warrior and serial winner, and about Mercedes, the team of the era.

Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, ponders whether Hamilton will win an unprecedented eighth title in 2021.

‘I don’t know,’ said Hill. ‘It is looking less certain this year than it has done for a long while. But over the course of the season, yes, I believe he will prevail.

‘But you can throw into the middle of that the contract question. If he decided he wanted to do another year, there could be a time in August or September when that would be a pressure he doesn’t need.

‘Imagine if it is a tight title fight and it comes out that Mercedes are talking to Max. Then what?’ Rumours have it that Wolff has already been in contact with Verstappen, however tangentially for now.  

That aside, Hill does not believe Hamilton is hindered by advancing age, saying: ‘Lewis has done it all with what appears to be consummate ease.

Should Hamilton prevail again this season it would be his greatest - but the clock is ticking

Should Hamilton prevail again this season it would be his greatest - but the clock is ticking

Should Hamilton prevail again this season it would be his greatest – but the clock is ticking

‘I know he would deny that and say it has been very hard — and there are races when he has needed to find another gear and has done so. It must be demoralising for everyone else. But he is not as old in his body and mind as other drivers who have reached the same stage of their careers.’

The timing screens in the dark desert evening offered the promise of good racing almost throughout the field, for less than a second covered the top 15 cars as practice ended. McLaren’s 21-year-old Lando Norris lay second quickest, a real tonic for the Woking-based team after a decade of decay.

A blockbuster season awaits. And if Hamilton prevails in all the circumstances, it may even rank as his greatest victory, as well as his last.