Lewis Hamilton has finally signed a new contract, but it is just for one year and raises the prospect that 2021 may represent his farewell to Mercedes and perhaps Formula One itself.
After months of deliberation, the Briton agreed a deal believed to be worth £30million to race for an unprecedented eighth world title when the season opens in Bahrain on March 28.
But team principal Toto Wolff refused to make promises over his star driver’s continuing involvement, saying: ‘Lewis needs to decide what his future holds for him, so I wouldn’t want to comment on where he stands.
Lewis Hamilton has signed a new one-year deal with Mercedes, but it hints at a farewell
‘On the other side, the team need to decide long-term what we are going to do about drivers. Valterri (Bottas) and Lewis have our 100 per cent commitment and loyalty for 2021. We will then look beyond this year and think what the line-up is in 2022 and beyond.
‘Our first discussion will be with Valtteri and Lewis, respecting our values of loyalty and integrity. But young drivers are the future.’
Wolff’s equivocation reflects that Hamilton turns 37 next birthday, the age Michael Schumacher was when Ferrari announced that the German — the hero of Maranello, with five of his seven titles having come in the red car — was being replaced by Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton, in turn, is perhaps learning the fine line between being master of everything one moment and on the skid row of your career the next.
The British star will turn 37 next year and could decide to bow out from F1 at a high point
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says Hamilton must make a decision on what his future holds
The seven-time world champion was quiet on social media about his deal – instead offering his congratulations to Tom Brady for winning the Super Bowl
Wolff did Hamilton the courtesy of saying the length of the deal was agreed ‘jointly’. The official line was that Covid limited their opportunities to negotiate, so they sorted this season’s contract with an eye to returning to the table at more leisure. In fact, making common cause was evidently difficult.
As for pay, Hamilton had wanted about £40m a year, a small increase on his previous salary, but was originally told to halve that demand given the economic hardships of the last year, not least in the car industry. Hamilton later tempered his requests.
‘Lewis recognises he is one of 2,000 people we have within our team, engine and chassis, and that it is not about two superstars but 2,000 superstars,’ revealed Wolff.
Hence Hamilton’s estimated compromise salary of £30m.
Hamilton’s exact thoughts were hard to gather on Monday. For, although he offered corporate quotes in the official press release, unusually he said nothing on social media about the deal, instead posting congratulations to his pal Tom Brady, the Super Bowl hero.
Wolf is understood to be considering Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (L) as a possible replacement
A tipping point in Hamilton’s fortunes can be traced to the Sakhir Grand Prix in Bahrain last December, when he missed out through Covid and was replaced by Williams’ George Russell.
The 22-year-old drove so superbly, nearly winning the race, that the world champion made a Lazarus-like recovery, practically folding his sick bed away so as not to let Russell embarrass him — and diminish his negotiating hand — in the final round in Abu Dhabi.
Wolff is thought to be looking at Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, possibly to partner Russell, for 2022. Perhaps the team will have evolved into ‘Ineos’, reflecting a potential further increased shareholding taken by the chemical company’s owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe.
Both the Mercedes name and the sport’s greatest winner may then be surplus to the new requirements.