There may be only one act of genius left in Lewis Hamilton’s kaleidoscopic career – a final bloom and a parting gift wrapped together.
This weekend at twilight in Bahrain, the most successful driver Formula 1 has known will start his 15th season with the aim of achieving an unprecedented eighth title, but his future work status is unknown.
The campaign promises to be an exciting test of his enduring prowess, as the Red Bull in the hands of 23-year-old Max Verstappen appears to have a small speed advantage. The stupor of Hamilton’s routine victories over the years – making lawn mowing a more thrilling Sunday chase – is likely to be shaken up.
Lewis Hamilton could be ready for a final season in F1 as he offers to win an eighth championship
While a wheel-to-wheel fight is a tempting prospect to the public, and balm to the sport, Hamilton comes into conflict at the doors of the new season on several fronts.
In fact, during his media sessions here, he was cheerful, thoughtful and relaxed. He took a new approach by greeting each questioner by name. He also insisted he had no plans to retire and addressed human rights issues in the region as if he had just discovered them.
Undoubtedly, the excitement of being back in the cockpit for the resumption of hostilities has wiped out some of the fog that has permeated his mind for the past few months and may nevertheless turn out to be closer to retirement.
‘Grumpy’ was the word Martin Brundle used to describe the world champion’s mood shortly after he signed his new one-year contract. Hamilton certainly gave the impression that he wasn’t too keen on his terms. But the root of his turmoil came here in the tiny Gulf Kingdom in December.
Hamilton gave the impression that he was not too keen on his new Mercedes terms
Hamilton is striving to break more records and insists he has no plans to retire anytime soon
Along with Covid, he was replaced by George Russell, called up by Williams, for the Sakhir Grand Prix.
As history records, Russell excellently drove a car he did not know and which he would have won without the most gruesome setback.
Hamilton rattled on from his sickbed. He was annoyed that Toto Wolff, his team principal, had undermined him by choosing Russell instead of reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne, who probably wouldn’t have caused such a sandstorm.
Hamilton felt undermined at Sakhir’s GP last season by team principal Toto Wolff (right)
The seven-time champion was exasperated by the decision to choose George Russell (above) to replace him after testing positive for Covid in place of reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne.
As John Watson, ex-driver and Formula 1 grandee, said, “Lewis must have thought,” This is where I suffer the consequences of Covid, I just won my seventh world title and everyone is talking about George Russell “.
There was an element of humiliation, certainly a sense of disrespect. The comment demeaned what Lewis had done, or at least it did it in his head. From then until now, my intuition has told me this will likely be his senior year. It upset his balance. ‘
It’s hard to believe that Russell’s call was not part of Wolff’s negotiating strategy, a way of showing Hamilton that he wasn’t as indispensable as his £ 40 million wage demands suggested he thought he was.
And since Verstappen is supposed to be available by the end of this year, thanks to a release clause, Wolff clearly wants to keep his options open, aware that Hamilton’s age, 37, means a rejuvenation of the team can’t be delayed for long. Time is every competitor’s bane. One minute they are Mr. Big; after that they are sir yesterday.
Further cloudiness of Hamilton is the loss a few weeks ago of the services of his right-hand man Marc Hynes. A regular at races, Hynes was both Hamilton’s gatekeeper and the CEO of his management company, Project 44.
Hamilton says Hynes’ remains one of my best friends’ and adds, ‘I’m doing a little restructuring right now and eventually there are plans we’re working on for the future. So someone may be coming at short notice and I’ll figure it out as I go along. ‘
Mercedes is reportedly already in talks with Max Verstappen (L) to replace Hamilton
Fortunately, his trainer, New Zealander Angela Cullen, is still in place. Losing her would have been like cutting a limb.
On Friday, Verstappen set the pace in both training sessions, powered by his super strong Honda engine. Hamilton was two tenths behind.
It had echoes of testing when the Briton took off twice in an unstable car – occurrences as common as Halley’s Comet sightings.
But we are still talking about Hamilton, a warrior and series winner, and Mercedes, the team at the time.
Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, questions whether Hamilton will win an unprecedented eighth title in 2021.
“I don’t know,” said Hill. ‘It looks less certain this year than in a long time. But I think he will be victorious in the course of the season.
‘But you can throw the contract question right in the middle of that. 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 it’s a tight title fight and it turns out Mercedes is talking to Max. Than what?’ There are rumors that Wolff has already had contact with Verstappen, but still tangentially for the time being.
That aside, Hill doesn’t believe Hamilton is bothered by aging, saying, ‘Lewis has done it all with what seems like ease.
Should Hamilton be victorious again this season, it would be his best – but the clock is ticking
‘I know he would deny that and say it has been very difficult – and there are races where he had to change gear and he has. It must be demoralizing to everyone else. But he is not as old in his mind and body as other drivers who have reached the same stage of their careers. ‘
The time screens in the dark desert night offered the promise of good racing almost all over the field, as less than a second covered the top 15 cars when practice ended. McLaren’s 21-year-old Lando Norris came in second, a real tonic for the Woking-based team after a decade of decline.
A blockbuster season awaits. And if Hamilton is victorious in all circumstances, it could even be his biggest win, as well as his last.