Until we know why Lewis Hamilton’s new Mercedes Formula 1 contract is only for one year, it’s all just speculation.
But if this is the first signal that Hamilton plans to retire from the cockpit next year, the reverberations will be deep.
Mercedes has become the greatest team in the sport’s history, technically and operationally and in combination with Hamilton has been literally unbeatable over a season in the hybrid era.
But as those record statistics have racked up, it has formed a sort of ice age elsewhere for drivers outside of that loop.
Max Verstappen is a driver of extraordinary ability but is about to start his seventh F1 season still with ‘only’ 10 grand prix victories to his name. Hamilton has averaged more than 10 victories per season for the last seven years.
Similarly Daniel Ricciardo has emerged during the hybrid era as a driver of unquestionable world champion calibre; year after year of stunning performances, jumping on pretty much every opportunity for victory presented to him – but that still only totals seven wins.
Now, at 31 years old, he’s trying yet another hand – with McLaren – just to get himself into position where it might be feasible to fight for a title at some point in the future.
How long before Ferrari can provide that other potential champion Charles Leclerc with the quality of equipment he will need to convert potential to reality?
Regardless of whether Mercedes continues to be the dominant team in any post-Hamilton future or whether its superiority is overhauled, Hamilton’s one-year contract may come to be seen as the signpost to a new era. One in which a different championship calibre driver can actually achieve his potential.
Hamilton’s short-term deal has to be worrying news for Red Bull, especially if there is a break clause in Verstappen’s contract (which ostensibly runs to the end of ’23) relating to whether the team has a manufacturer engine partner (which it won’t have after the end of this year).
There has been a friendly relationship between Mercedes and Verstappen stretching back to even before he made his F1 debut. Toto Wolff has maintained a good dialogue with the Verstappens ever since, sometimes to the irritation of Red Bull’s Christian Horner.
The prospect of Hamilton retiring from driving duties at the end of this year, having achieved a record-breaking eighth title, is not so difficult to envision.
If that comes to pass, Verstappen would be the most obvious replacement. If Mercedes then maintains its superiority into the new aero regulations then F1 might simply replace the Hamilton era with a Verstappen era.
Because he was only 17 when he made his debut, Verstappen still has a potentially long F1 career ahead of him. Getting into a potentially dominant team at the age of 24, he could quite conceivably enjoy the full fruits of that for over a decade, time enough maybe even to challenge some of those all-time records.
But factor into this George Russell. Valtteri Bottas is also only in contract for this year, his Mercedes deal expiring at the same time as Russell’s Williams contract. After his sensational stand-in performance at Sakhir, which just rubber-stamped the regard in which Mercedes holds him, it would seem obvious that Russell will be promoted in ’22.
So an all-new Verstappen-Russell line-up at Mercedes from ’22? It’s more than feasible.
In which case, could Russell prevent the new era being a Verstappen one and make it instead Verstappen-Russell?
He’s met every challenge thrown at him so far. Who’s to say he wouldn’t be up to that one? The dynamic quality such an exciting idea lends to F1’s prospects just underlines how predictable it has become in the Hamilton era.
Or… in the unlikely event Verstappen’s contract doesn’t have that manufacturer engine break clause and he genuinely is committed to Red Bull until the end of ’23, then the whole world conceivably opens up for Russell.
Alternatively, what if any Hamilton departure signals the beginning of the entropy process finally unfolding at Mercedes – that law of nature which determines that nothing can ever remain ordered in the long run?
Some of the people at the core of that team have been working together almost 20 years, having risen to senior positions along the way, and their personal chemistry is very much part of the team’s stability.
It would not be unusual if a key event – such as the retirement of a long-time lead driver – triggered a reassessed commitment among long-time team members, a stepping back from the coalface. Which, together with the change in regulations, might just be enough to reduce the team’s competitive position from invincible to merely competitive.
But amid all this speculation – and that’s all it can be until Hamilton confirms what he intends to do after this season – spare a thought for Ricciardo.
Having signed his new McLaren deal, he will be out-of-synch with the market if Hamilton’s seat becomes available next year. Because if Red Bull lost Verstappen it would badly need Ricciardo to return.
He must now hope that he can be part of McLaren becoming just as desirable a seat as leading a Verstappen-less Red Bull team.