Leclerc and Verstappen contract extensions limit Hamilton's options next year

08-01-2020 16:58
by Nicolás Quarles van Ufford
General
Leclerc and Verstappen contract extensions limit Hamilton's options next year

Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton has not committed his F1 career beyond 2020 yet and has reportedly flirted with the idea of leaving Mercedes for another contender. However, with both Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen penning long-term contracts, the Brit's situation hasn't been made any easier.

Mercedes' future still uncertain

Publicly, Hamilton has never looked unhappy or said anything that made him seem unhappy at Mercedes, but it's still not certain whether the German works team will even remain on the F1 grid in its current form as a constructor. 

As an engine manufacturer, they already have two customers in 2021 in Williams and McLaren, but they could potentially still bow out as a physical team on the grid. In this very unlikely scenario, Hamilton would have knock on a different team's door.

Looking ahead to the potential pecking order on the grid in 2021, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing and Ferrari seemingly don't have a lot to fear from midfield contenders. At least, that's what those teams are saying themselves. McLaren, who made excellent progress in 2019, think the current top teams will have an advantage until at least 2024 because of their current budgets as they're currently able to invest hundreds of millions more than other teams.

Therefore, Ferrari and Red Bull would be the two teams Hamilton would want to look first, should he switch sides after this year.

Ferrari and Red Bull back their youth products

The moment Charles Leclerc finally got his first F1 win in Belgium, people immediately started asking whether the young Monegasque was Ferrari's new undisputed number one. The next race, Sebastian Vettel had his worst race of the season while Leclerc gave Ferrari its first home win in nine years at Monza. A new king had been crowned at Ferrari.

Recently, the 22-year-old extended his contract all the way until 2024. Now, anyone who knows Ferrari knows the team typically has a number one and a number two driver. With Leclerc tied to Maranello for five seasons, this would make the addition of Hamilton very unlikely. He'll want an equal role within the role, if not more.

At Red Bull, it's quite similar. Besides the fact that their golden boy Max Verstappen penned a four-year deal yesterday and that the Bulls will want the Dutchman to lead their charge this decade, Red Bull also tend to pick their drivers from within their own pool of talent. Although there currently are no prodigies in their youth program ready to make the step up to F1 (Yuri Vips, for example, still needs more super license points), Red Bull also seem quite happy with Alex Albon in the second seat.

The Thai driver's contract runs out at the end of this year, so Hamilton could potentially be plugged in there should they sour on him, but do Red Bull want another Vettel-Webber situation on their hands with Verstappen and Hamilton? Arguably the two best drivers on the grid, their competitiveness could be detrimental to the team. Food for thought.

Back to McLaren?

Should Mercedes decide to call it a day after this year, every team will no doubt try to pull Hamilton to their garage. Ferrari and Red Bull are unlikely destinations. Could a return to his previous team be on the cards?

McLaren will once again be powered by Mercedes engines from 2021 onwards, as they were when Hamilton won his first F1 title back in 2008. The Woking-based team signed the man from Stevenage on to their youth program when he was only 10 years old and helped him become the unbelievable driver he is today. 

If the 35-year-old would return to McLaren next year, however, one of the team's two drivers would have to make way. Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris make for a very good line-up and their chemistry is undeniable. With the amount of time and money that has been spent in Norris, it would most likely be Sainz who would have to make way, as he had to do at Renault in 2018.

Hamilton and Russell continue Mercedes' legacy

All of the scenarios mentioned above only come into play if Mercedes fold or if Hamilton wants to move on from the Silver Arrows, both of which seem rather unlikely given their dominance in recent years. The previously mentioned advantage the current top teams have on midfield teams heading into 2021 is another reason for the six-time champion to stay put at the Germans.

Hamilton's current teammate Valtteri Bottas will most likely have to make way in 2021, however. The Finn has had three seasons so far to take on Hamilton in the same car but has failed to challenge the 35-year-old in any of those years whatsoever.

With the regulation facing massive changes next year, it would be the ideal moment for Mercedes to promote one of their other junior drivers. George Russell at Williams and Esteban Ocon at Renault will be the main candidates. Both incredibly talented young drivers, it seems like there is no wrong choice there.

Mercedes could look for middle ground for Russell, though. The step up from Williams to Mercedes would be enormous, and while the young Brit has showcased his immense talent in the junior categories, it could be wise to stall him at a midfield constructor first so the 21-year-old can get more experience battling other cars before earning his promotion to the big-time.

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