At the launch of the W12 this week, Lewis Hamilton appeared to confirm his desire to stay in Formula One into 2022 – regardless of whether or not he wins the Drivers’ Championship for an eighth time in 2021. The Briton can surpass Michael Schumacher for the most F1 world titles of all time this season.
But he said about his future, having signed only a one-year contract extension with Mercedes last month: “I have made a real important decision in my mind that [the Schumacher record] I don’t want that to be the deciding factor.
“I got into racing because I loved racing. That has got to be at the core of what I do. If I don’t love racing, if all you’re going for is accolades, all you’re going for is titles I feel like I could potentially lose my way.
“Of course it’s the ultimate dream but I don’t think it’s going to be the deciding factor as to whether I stay or keep going.
“It’s more whether when I put the helmet on, I still have the smile when I leave the garage. Last year was a really tough year for everyone, including me. There were still some really impactful moments.
“Will it be the case this year? We’ll see. Will I enjoy it as much? I’m excited now, so I’m sure I will.”
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Consider those recent suggestions that surpassing Schumacher might see Hamilton call it a day firmly shut down, then. Championship success is no longer the Briton’s motivation, he says, and so he’ll keep driving for as long as he loves it as much as he does.
He may be 36 years old but Hamilton’s mesmerising ability means he still has a few years left at the top. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen may rival the seven-time champion for sheer blistering pace, but no-one on the grid matches his racecraft.
The news then that Hamilton is likely to continue into 2022 is more than welcome, although it isn’t ideal for one man – his team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
The Finn remains as determined as ever to dethrone the man across from him in the Mercedes garage but he finished 124 points behind last season and though huge misfortune has hurt Bottas in recent seasons, it’s clear he simply is not of the same standard as Hamilton.
Time and time again he has made it obvious he has not intentions to resort to the psychological tactics employed by Nico Rosberg, the only man to beat Mercedes to the title since 2014 having done so in 2016, when he retired after having channelled everything into bettering Hamilton.
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Despite exhausting himself to do so, Hamilton only ended five points behind and it’s no surprise that he has bettered the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Bottas and Verstappen so dominantly in the past four years since Rosberg retired.
Despite having to cram his tall frame into a cockpit designed for the smaller Hamilton, having to wear shoes a size too small to fit in, Russell was twice nailed on for victory if not for a team pitstop mistake and then a cruel puncture.
He finished a very narrow second to Bottas in qualifying too, with ‘Mr Saturday’ as he’s become known for Williams – where he has never been outqualified and owns a 37-0 perfect record on Saturdays – making it clear that he has the pace to race for the Silver Arrows not just in the future, but now.
Before Hamilton’s comments about an eighth title, it was assumed that both Mercedes seats might be up for grabs for 2022, with Russell, fellow Mercedes junior driver Esteban Ocon and Verstappen among those in the frame.
But unless his feelings change throughout this season, as they certainly could, Hamilton currently seems pretty set on staying on to see how the new regulations impact F1 in 2022.
That would leave just one seat uncertain and despite Mercedes’ loyalty to Bottas, if Russell is consistent throughout 2021, outqualifies Nicholas Latifi regularly and perhaps sneaks a few points finishes, he is well and truly knocking on the door.
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Bottas has said ahead of the upcoming season, which begins in Bahrain on March 28: “This year, although Lewis has won all the titles since we’ve been team-mates, going into this year we’re starting from fresh and with a new page.
“And yes, I absolutely believe I can fight for the title. That’s, of course, the ultimate goal this season. That’s my target.”
But the past two years, he’s finished second but ended well adrift of Hamilton. The gap between the pair last year coming despite Hamilton missing the Sakhir race due to coronavirus.
If Bottas doesn’t do more to bridge the deficit, and Russell continues to improve and show a steady and stable level of performance from race to race for backmarkers Williams, Toto Wolff will have a real decision to make before the end of this season.
It looks like 2021 will be make or break for Bottas with the Brackley-based outfit.