It lingered on, but the deal had been all but sealed for months. Lewis Hamilton was always extending his stay at Mercedes – where he has claimed six of his seven world titles – and George Russell has joined him in parallel. Particulars of salary and contract length, with Hamilton reportedly receiving a £10m increase to £50m a year, show the gargantuan regard in which he is still held. No barren year or two is going to change that.
But Hamilton’s contract announcement came with a message. A series of them, in fact. A press release hammered home the same beat. “We have never been hungrier to win”; “we continue to chase our dreams”; “unfinished business.” Words with substance behind them not just for the fans, but for the Mercedes engineers and mechanics at Brackley and Brixworth.
Frankly, it may as well have read: “Give me the car to win – and I’ll make it happen.”
But it was a sharp prod in the direction of Max Verstappen, his 2021 nemesis and current runaway leader, which really rippled the currents ahead of this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza, where Verstappen is chasing a record-breaking 10th win on the spin.
“In my personal opinion, all my teammates have been stronger than the teammates Max has had,” Hamilton said, less an opinion and more a matter of fact. “Jenson, Fernando, George, Valtteri, Nico. Absolutely. Those guys were very strong and consistent. Max isn’t racing against anyone like that.”
It is the sort of needle, a vital statement of intent, which has been missing from Hamilton’s repertoire since that infamous night in Abu Dhabi; the night a record-breaking crown was, in his words, “stolen” from his grasp. Mercedes’ hair-raising fall, coupled with Red Bull’s unrelenting ascendancy, has only exacerbated the sheer anger and exasperation which Hamilton must have experienced behind closed doors and, at times, in real time on team radio.
Amid the 2022 season, it all inevitably raised bigger questions about his future. Will he retire? Is the fight still there? Can No 8 still be achieved?
Throughout rumours which included a fairytale-esque switch to Ferrari, Hamilton’s response has been unequivocal. Despite the to-ing and fro-ing between representatives regarding his contract, his prophecy unmistakable. Mercedes is the place he wants to be – and he’s here to stay.
The hard work for Toto Wolff – whose jadedness in the last 18 months has been obvious – and his team starts now. Wolff’s effective second in command Andrew Shovlin this week emphasised that they are targeting “challenging for a championship next year”.
He added: “We’re optimistic we can do that… our entire focus is on making sure we can challenge them next year.”
“Them” of course means Red Bull. A team – spearheaded by design guru Adrian Newey – who have maxed (no pun intended) out their potential during this ground-effect regulation era, creating the quickest car on the grid and one made in perfect harmony with their leading driver. A team which has won all 13 races – 16 including sprints – this season. A team which will take some catching.
But in Formula One, a sport where every minute detail counts against the clock, a hefty deficit can gradually be eroded. Mercedes bungled their car philosophy last year with their unorthodox “no-sidepod” approach, before bungling once again by persevering with it at the start of this season. Only Monaco in May, race six of 2023, saw a more conventional car out on the tarmac. Yet despite brief flirtations with the top of the standings and Hamilton’s first podium in more than 18 months, their W14 remains some way off Red Bull’s RB19.
This time, heading into 2024, there can be no excuses. A shift in the boardroom, with ex-Ferrari chief James Allison reverting to a more hands-on role, swapping with Mike Elliott who shifted back to base, is also an indicator of an evolving approach. For the next few months and the off-season, the priority is next year as opposed to short-term progress this season.
Even then, 2024 may come too soon. Red Bull’s superiority – not just over Mercedes, but Ferrari, Aston Martin and McLaren too – is so vast that catching them will be unlikely. 2025, the last year of these current set of rules, may be a more realistic prospect. Building sustainable blocks, though, is paramount. No championships can come about without race-winning consistency first.
It may explain why Hamilton, who will now race in Formula One to the eve of his 41st birthday, has once again committed to a two-year deal. The past 18 months have also shown that Russell is closely matched with his compatriot: in-house competition which should only help in the car development phase.
But Hamilton has set his stall out. The 38-year-old goes by a fundamental motto: “Still we rise.” For every knockback comes a fresh challenge and opportunity to return better than ever before. Fernando Alonso’s renaissance this year, at 42, shows age is no obstacle either.
His quest to be the statistical greatest of all time remains very much alive. But first, before any realistic title aspirations, Mercedes must give him the machinery to challenge. We now all wait to see how soon that could be.
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