I’ve got to admit to being a massive hypocrite when it comes to discussing today’s news about Lewis Hamilton’s new contract, because on one hand I’ve got some pretty strong feelings on the way the Formula 1 world reacts to such a deal, and on the other I’m enjoying the fact that we’ve been given another thing to talk about in the off-season!
Apologies in advance for my Grandpa moment, but this situation reminds me of something that happened back in 2012. I was at the Indian Grand Prix – just my second race on site as a journalist for ESPN at the time – and Felipe Massa had agreed a new one-year contract extension with Ferrari at the age of 31.
Massa had been a loyal servant to Ferrari, especially in playing number two to Fernando Alonso, who had signed a five-year extension the previous year. So I thought it was a little harsh to only give Massa a one-year deal at that point when it had put so much faith in the driver he was supporting, and asked the Brazilian if he was happy with the extra 12 months.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Massa was not pleased with the question. He laughed at the fact I’d even asked it, and answered to everyone else in the room that he’d just signed a new contract, and here was a guy making it out to be negative and asking about the next one.
I’m clearly over it…
Joking aside, that did turn out to be Massa’s final Ferrari contract, but in reality that’s a much more similar scenario to the one Valtteri Bottas faces each season, where it feels like Mercedes almost expects him to fail and wants the insurance policy of being able to replace him if required.
For Hamilton, it seems that he’s at a much more important point in his career where he isn’t sure what he is going to want to do next, and when he is going to want to do it. And time was ticking on this season. But the announcement just brings those questions and uncertainties into sharper focus.
Mercedes originally planned on getting the deal agreed at the end of last year, but Hamilton testing positive for COVID-19 scuppered that and pushed it into 2021. Then when negotiations appeared a bit more complex, they dragged on and there was a need to get something in place for this year, so that’s what both sides have done.
But while that explanation is completely understandable, it means the focus is already on later this year and the following deal – if there is to be one…
“It is the third contract that we have been discussing so it is not as though we needed to start from scratch, but it is an important contract,” Toto Wolff said. “It is important because of this season and how we want to position ourselves from 2022 onwards, and how he’s thinking.
“Lewis needs to decide what his future holds for him, that’s why I wouldn’t want to comment on where he stands. The team needs to decide in the long term what we want to do about drivers.
“Valtteri and Lewis have our 100 percent commitment and loyalty for 2021. We will support them with everything we have, and we will then look beyond this year and see what line up we imagine in 2022 and onwards, and our first discussions will be with Valtteri and Lewis in respecting our values of loyalty and integrity.
“On the other side, young drivers are the future, therefore we need to consider how we want to set ourselves up for the years beyond.”
When it comes to younger drivers, George Russell is an obvious candidate to get his chance at Mercedes if there are changes after this year, and that could come in place of either driver as Wolff confirms Hamilton has no right of veto on his teammate. (Not that a one-year deal would allow him one anyway). But it feels as if a Russell-for-Bottas move would be Mercedes-driven, and a Russell-for-Hamilton change would come from the driver himself.
An interview I did with Hamilton at the end of last season provides some insight into why he might not be in a position to commit to a longer-term deal right now, because at 36 years old he is very much trying to time his exit right.
“I’m very, very fortunate, I’ve kind of had everything I’ve ever wanted,” Hamilton said. “The thing that I really want now is more time, more special moments with those close. I want a better relationship with those that are around me, family…
“What I want to do next – that’s something that I’m working on constantly, and I’m telling you it’s a really long process. Because the priority currently still is here (in F1), this is what I continue to love doing and I won’t allow my performance level to drop. I’ve got to figure out how I can continue to incrementally improve, and that’s not easy at all.
“But what’s next? I think the great thing that Formula 1 has given me and this platform has given me (is), I pretty much can do anything I want moving forwards. But what’s shown this year and what you see is I do really care about pushing for change for people. If I can really utilize my voice and my time here to have a really positive impact, how big or small that positive impact is depends how much I work and how hard I go at it, whilst being able to do what I do in the racing space.
“When I stop this, I’m not fazed by retiring. I speak to a lot of people and they say ‘You’re a long time retired’ and I’m aware of that. So I don’t want to do it too early, and I don’t want to do it too late, that you’re on a bad curve and you’re going downhill. I don’t necessarily want that to happen. But I think moving forward I just want to be challenged.
“I’m always going to be challenging myself doing… There’s going to be some sort of business that I’m involved in and utilizing the voice that I have, whether it’s speaking out publicly, or working in the background with organizations to really move the needle in a big way and not just a little step, you know? I think I have the opportunity to do some really positive things for people out there, so it’s going to take a lot of work.”
Even then, it was clear Hamilton is weighing up his next move. Now isn’t the time for it – COVID-19 is hardly helping create stability – so the latest deal has been signed, but the contract length is also an admission from the seven-time world champion that he might feel differently by the end of this year.
So, congratulations on the new deal that we’ve all been asking about, but the focus is already on whether there will even be a next one. For the first time, it is not unreasonable to wonder if Lewis Hamilton has signed his final F1 contract.