Lewis Hamilton will race on in Formula One this season but it may yet be the swansong to an extraordinary career. The world champion has agreed a new deal with his Mercedes team but only for this year, leaving the 36-year-old still to consider whether to bring the curtain down after securing seven titles and potentially an eighth, or continue in pursuit of even greater achievements.
Hamilton’s deal was concluded after a protracted process hampered by the pandemic – the first race is set to take place in Bahrain on 28 March – and he said he was excited by the prospect of another season. “Our team has achieved incredible things together and we look forward to building on our success even further,” he said.
The British driver made his debut in 2007, won his first title for McLaren in 2008 and after joining Mercedes in 2013 has enjoyed a remarkable run with the team, taking six further titles between 2014 and 2020, becoming the most successful driver in the sport’s history. He has been almost untouchable during this period and in recent years at the peak of his form. However, he has said that he would only race on while he was still relishing the challenge. He enjoys interests outside the sport, including music and fashion, and has been clear he intends to pursue these when he retires.
Hamilton dominated last season and, with the rules frozen for this year, he is strong favourite to take an eighth title and surpass Michael Schumacher’s record of seven. If he does so and, with a swathe of new regulations coming in 2022, it remains moot whether he will want to go any further.
Hamilton did not expand on his statement in a Mercedes press release but the team principal, Toto Wolff, who has been with Hamilton at the team since 2013, insisted his driver had yet to make a call on whether he would continue beyond 2021.
“Lewis needs to decide what his future holds for him, that’s why I wouldn’t want to comment on where he stands,” he said. “But the team needs to decide in the long term what we want to do about drivers.”
Hamilton has said he could envisage racing for a further three years and Wolff acknowledged his driver was easily capable of doing so but reiterated that Hamilton would consider a greater perspective than merely whether he could race on.
“As long as he enjoys racing, I think he’s very capable of going longer,” said Wolff. “He develops as a driver, he looks after himself in terms of physical training and mental preparation side, so I don’t think in terms of ability that ends in 2021, but at the end it’s his decision.”
Mercedes are also considering their future prospects. Wolff confirmed that Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas would be the first drivers Mercedes would approach for extending contracts. Given how late this year’s deal with Hamilton was done, Wolff said the negotiations for further contracts would open much earlier but that the team was already considering its next generation of drivers.
“We will support them with everything we have. We will then look beyond this year and say what is the line-up that we imagine in 2022 and onwards?” he said. “Our first discussion will be with Valtteri and Lewis but on the other side, the young drivers are the future and we need to consider how we want to set ourselves up for the years beyond.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is considered the most likely heir to Hamilton’s crown and Mercedes have also been preparing George Russell, one of their junior drivers, for a potential seat with the team. Russell, 22, who drives for Williams, stood in at Mercedes for a Covid-stricken Hamilton at the second Bahrain GP last year and performed brilliantly.
Wolff said the single-year extension was an expedient measure due to the contracted timescale in which to negotiate it. The team and Hamilton wanted to have a deal done so that more time could be devoted to the more complex consideration of continuing beyond 2021. Hamilton’s contract is worth a reported £40m a year, however, and the team principal noted the industry was in a “different financial reality to a few years ago”.
Wolff argued that the decision by Mercedes to give multimillion euro financial backing to a charitable foundation opened jointly with Hamilton to promote diversity and inclusion in motorsport was indicative of their long-term commitment to one another. It is certain Hamilton will remain dedicated to that cause but it is not one he will consider is dependent on him continuing to race in F1.