To inform the thesis of this piece, let me first share a little (very recent) anecdote about myself.
On Sunday, when Williams Formula 1 driver George Russell pulled out of the year’s first Virtual GP at late notice, my first three thoughts upon clocking the announcement in my feed were something like: “He must be too busy discussing a Mercedes 2021 deal!”, “In fact, I bet he’s at Brackley right now putting pen to paper!” and “He’s probably already doing a seat fit in a W12!”.
None of those wild theories – if you can even call them that – have any basis in reality whatsoever, aside from Lewis Hamilton being yet to agree his new Mercedes contract and Russell being obviously first in line for the seat should contract talks fall apart.
But it’s the reaction itself that I found informative, and it’s got little to do with the prospect itself of Russell driving for Mercedes – although the Sakhir Grand Prix has proven rather conclusively that it’d be a blast.
Instead, it’s about the man who wouldn’t be on the grid.
A Hamilton sabbatical would transform the upcoming F1 season from one with a clear favourite – which Hamilton is, having comfortably seen off Valtteri Bottas in each of their seasons together and with Mercedes having got an early start on this year after stopping the development of the W11 midway through last year – to effectively a toss-up between Bottas and Max Verstappen, and maybe Russell and Sergio Perez.
In other words, losing Hamilton from the 2021 grid is very likely to make the season more enjoyable for the neutral.
You don’t have to go very far for an example of that – MotoGP went Marc Marquez-less for most of 2020, and though his brilliance was obviously missed (and his injury and subsequent recovery setbacks aren’t something you can wish on anyone and still remain a baseline decent human being), the title battle was its best in years.
The above makes it all so easy to root for setbacks in the Hamilton-Mercedes negotiations, to want the Mercedes board to go for the nuclear option or for Hamilton to stand firm on his contract terms and walk away.
Or, well, I wish it was that easy.
The truth is, Hamilton is no ordinary dominant sporting figure. Yes, his mastery of his craft is obviously enjoyable and would be missed, but the same can be said for any ‘dominator’ – as aesthetically cohesive and pleasing, for instance, as Hansi Flick’s Bayern is, the past decade of the Bundesliga would’ve been a much better viewing experience without the Munich team.
But what puts Hamilton aside is that he’s also F1’s beacon of diversity and societal responsibility, a champion of causes – from social justice to ecological awareness and veganism – that people like myself see as important. There have been bumps on the road, absolutely, but there’s no doubt in my mind he has been a force for good.
And even outside of his activism, the fact is he’s F1 only black driver ever, and he also might just be its best-ever driver – of any of them.
And if he got a chance to cement his legacy as its most successful driver in history with a record-breaking eighth title, even if that meant a dull 2021 title battle, it would clearly be something to celebrate and marvel at, in a sport that has been so historically white-dominated.
His success has happened against the backdrop of racism, too – clear, obvious racism, seen most recently in the bile his Black Lives Matter campaigning attracts to social media on this day. And if you somehow think the BLM stance was the catalyst, I’ve read enough older comments under news articles in my native language – enough horrible, dehumanising things written about the man and targeted at his racial identity – to know otherwise.
So how could I possibly want him to walk away, to stop his chase for records, to lose his F1 platform? Why would I want those who hate him because of his race, or despise his activism, to feel content and, worse, emboldened?
If you’re personally invested in F1, there’s a decent chance you face the same dilemma. And there’s no single answer – but the good news is, no matter how the situation with Hamilton’s 2021 plays out in the coming days, there will be a positive side to focus on.
If he walks away, the entertainment side of F1 – an entertainment product, first and foremost – will almost certainly get better, at least in terms of the overall picture of the season.
But if he stays, neutral F1 fans still get to enjoy Hamilton on-track and be proud of his impact off-track – and maybe that’s worth sacrificing an all-time-great 2021 title battle for.