I’ll admit it, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was not a classic, even if it did come alive in the closing stages further down the field. Different strategies all converging in the final laps and a number of last-ditch overtakes (take a bow, Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz) provided an entertaining finish, but when there’s a dominant winner, a race is rarely remembered fondly.
In this weekend’s case, however, the dominant winner was part of something that might just make it a memorable grand prix indeed.
Lewis Hamilton was at his absolute best on track. He struggled on Friday as he experimented with new set-up techniques and directions, but then turned it around, further increasing his pole position record and waltzing off into the distance when the lights went out.
But it’s not his performance behind the wheel that we need to talk about; it’s his performance behind the microphone.
When Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto was asked if he would like to sign Hamilton in 2021 — when the six-time World Champion becomes available — the Italian was understandably polite and positive in his response.
“Lewis is certainly an outstanding driver, a fantastic driver,” Binotto said. “Knowing that he’s available in 2021 can only make us happy; but honestly it’s too early for any decision. We are happy with the drivers we have at the moment, and I think certainly at one stage next season we will start discussing and understanding what to do.”
The question was actually the second part of one posed to Toto Wolff about Hamilton’s future being tied up with that of the Mercedes team principal. But it allowed Binotto the chance to talk the Briton up for two other reasons: Not only could it potentially destabilize the relationship between Hamilton and Mercedes if the former starts to doubt his future plans, it also acts as a warning to Sebastian Vettel to up his game or risk seeing his seat taken by his rival.
If I’m honest, at that point of the weekend it didn’t really feel like a massive story on the radar, because there were reasons for it to become one without any substance. But then Italian daily sports newspaper La Gazzetta ran a claim that Hamilton had met twice with Ferrari chairman John Elkann this year, and the matter gained momentum.
Hamilton was asked about Binotto’s comments and whether Ferrari is wasting its time after qualifying on pole, and he was surprisingly open with his response — just when you would expect him to bat away such a question.
“I think it’s never a waste of time to ever being nice to someone,” was Hamilton’s reply. “It has been a long, long time and a team that I’ve always appreciated over the years. So to earn the respect from someone from there who’s obviously very high up is obviously not a bad thing. I think they’ve got two great drivers as is so who knows what the driver market’s going to be doing over the next year.”
You could also take “someone from there who’s obviously very high up” as being either Binotto or Elkann, especially when given the context of his Sunday post-race quotes on the topic after being directly asked if he’d met with Elkann.
“Naturally, everything that happens behind closed doors is obviously always private with whoever it is you end up sitting with…” was the first part of that response. Certainly not a refusal.
What’s even more interesting about the whole situation, and what is both adding fuel to the fire but also raising further questions is the way Wolff has responded. The Mercedes team principal said he would be “totally OK” with Hamilton meeting with Elkann and “would be the first one to cheer” if the relationship between himself and his star driver were to end.
Wolff and Hamilton have a strong and honest relationship, but Mercedes and Hamilton have an even longer one. To join Ferrari would mean leaving the company he has raced for — under the McLaren-Mercedes name and then for the works team — his entire F1 career.
Mercedes’ future in the sport has come under increasing doubt given parent company Daimler’s announcement it would cut 10,000 jobs as it seeks to costs by around $1.5B by the end of 2022.
Wolff has also been linked with Chase Carey’s job once the F1 CEO and chairman moves on, and perhaps Hamilton sees that as the moment to jump ship, or vice versa.
On the other hand, it could be that the recent Daimler announcements have made the Mercedes pair uncertain and keen for clarity on the team’s future. What better way to accelerate that process than to get people talking about the possibility of one, or even both, leaving at the end of next year?
Before you even think about overall commercial agreements between teams and F1, it’s contract negotiation time for Hamilton and Mercedes, as well as Vettel and Ferrari, and even Verstappen and Red Bull. The latter could be the perfect replacement if Wolff stays, Mercedes commits but Hamilton goes. Should Hamilton stay put, would Verstappen’s recent comments about Ferrari and its power unit endear him to Maranello? Probably not…
The driver market in 2021 was always going to be fun, but it has kicked off even earlier than expected. Big names are starting to maneuver themselves into position, and they want to know what their options are.
So, could Hamilton to Ferrari really happen? Of course it could. Yes, to have such speculation over Hamilton’s future out there serves both Mercedes and Ferrari — for the reasons mentioned before — but only at this stage. The rumors serves different purposes, but between them have really lit the fire this weekend.
Which means there’s every chance someone could get burned at the end of it all.