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Hamilton: Man on a mission or a last hurrah?

Win or lose, will this be Lewis Hamilton's final Formula 1 season or will he sign a new Mercedes deal and continue into the sport's new era in 2022?

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

It's a question that is impossible to answer, simply because even the man himself is adamant that he doesn't yet know.

Speculation about Hamilton's career plans has been rife since his new one-year deal was finally announced on February 8, a little over a month before the start of testing in Bahrain.

It's not the first time that he has gone into a season with only that year left on a contract, but usually it's been at the conclusion of a longer deal.

This time around it's different, and the fact that the current arrangement was concluded so late reflects the complex bargaining process before both sides were happy. By agreeing a one-year deal, Hamilton has kept his options open – and so has team boss Toto Wolff.

Throw in the availability of George Russell, and potentially Max Verstappen, and there is plenty about which to speculate. It all feeds into the ongoing debate on what Hamilton might choose to do at the end of this season.

First, he has the chance to secure an eighth world championship, putting himself out on his own in the history books, ahead of Michael Schumacher.

Many see that potential achievement as the ideal time for him to walk away, at the very pinnacle of his career. On the other hand, if he doesn't win this year could that provide extra motivation to carry on into 2022 and have another go?

Hamilton addressed the potential influence of an eighth title on his thought process at the launch of the W12 a few weeks ago, dismissing the idea that it would be key.

"I think I have made a real important decision in my mind, [which] is that I don't want that to be the deciding factor.

"I got into racing because I loved racing, and I think that has got to be always at the core of what I do. If I don't love racing, if all you are going for is accolades, if all you're going for is titles, I feel I could potentially lose my way.

"Of course, it is the ultimate dream. But I don't think necessarily it will be the deciding factor for whether I stay and keep going. I think it is more when I put that helmet on that I still have that smile when I leave the garages."

That's the bottom line, and in many ways it's simple. If Hamilton is still enjoying himself, getting pleasure from driving, from honing the car, from pushing his team to greater heights, and from beating rivals on track, then there's no reason why he should stop.

"I'm fully invested in this season and in delivering," he said at the car launch. "I still love what I do. I'm generally in a fortunate position that I don't have to commit to multiple years.

"So I chose to have a one-year deal, so then I could see how the year goes, and where we're at mid-year, or towards the end of the year. Who knows whether we'll still be in a pandemic? But it doesn't mean I'm not committed, I'm still very, very committed to the sport."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

The flipside is the sheer effort required by Hamilton to sustain his competitive level year in, year out.

This is his 15th season at the top, and along with his seven titles, he's taken the championship battle to the final round on three other occasions.

His junior career was no less pressured – he had to keep winning in karting, Formula Renault, F3 and GP2 in order to progress and keep Ron Dennis happy.

All that has required an extraordinary and sustained degree of commitment to the job. Consider that Hamilton's contemporary and rival Nico Rosberg called it quits at the end of 2016 in large part because of what winning that year's title took out of him.

Hamilton, meanwhile, has maintained that level for another four seasons, and is heading into a fifth. It's not easy, even for someone as driven as he is.

"In terms of consistently coming back each year, that is I think one of the biggest challenges I think of any athlete in the world faces," he noted at the Bahrain test.

"But the goal is always to try and improve and not drop the ball in the other areas that you're strong at. Focus on weak areas, while still keeping the others strong. I can tell you that it's definitely not an easy task.

"There have been times where I've improved in some areas, but other areas have dipped a bit. A lot of it is also collaboration, working with your engineers, challenging your engineers, having them challenge you, and raise areas in which they feel that they can see better ways of working together. It goes back to energy levels, fitness, and mental health.

"I think there are all these really important key factors and elements that you have to try and have firing on all cylinders. And naturally, as athletes and competitors, being in competition, we're on the edge all the time. And so that's a very difficult balance to strike."

Hamilton has always helped himself to maintain that balance by staying busy away from the tracks, with his interests in music and fashion and so on.

Last year, diversity issues took even more of his focus than previously, and his foundation – along with the work he is doing on a similar front with Mercedes – has provided him with extra inspiration out of the cockpit.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1, on the grid

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1, on the grid

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

On the other hand, like everyone else, the pandemic has forced him to make sacrifices. He's rarely seen family and friends over the past year, and put his usual jet setting social lifestyle on hold. His routine has mostly revolved around the racing, with lots of solitary nights in hotels or in his motorhome.

It could be that he's missing a necessary relief valve, which will make it even tougher to tackle this year's relentless 23-race schedule.

His team's form on track is another part of the equation and, after a poor test, this weekend's Bahrain GP will give us more of an indication of the true picture at Mercedes.

Obviously, the team has the potential to recover, but even if the W12 is soon winning races it's hard to imagine that we will see a return to the dominant form of past years. The opposition is too strong now.

Hamilton has always enjoyed a challenge, and preferred to have someone to fight. For the moment the prospect of recovering from the early setbacks is hugely motivating, although it might become more of a grind if the team struggles to regain winning form.

"I don't waste time worrying," he said at the test. "That deters you from finding the solution.

"I think it's better when it doesn't go smoothly, or it's better that it doesn't go smooth now, and goes smooth once we get into the racing scene.

"This is the perfect time for us to find the issues and have the problems, so I welcome that. And I think everyone's just keeping their heads down.

"No one is fazed by it. We are a multi championship-winning team, and we know how to pull together, and keep our head down, and focus on the job.

"It is quite impressive to see the speed of some of the other teams. I think Red Bull are looking particularly strong. And it's great to see McLaren also looking strong, also Alpine. I'm excited also because that means more fun."

So what of the longer term? There are many unknowns heading towards 2022 as Hamilton weighs up his future, including question marks over the extent of Daimler AG's commitment beyond this season.

It has already reduced its shareholding in the team, with INEOS and Jim Ratcliffe taking a stake. Speculation persists to the effect that from 2022 it will also scale down its financial support, and that funding will have to be sourced from outside.

That in turn means that mega salaries might no longer be available, even if there is no FIA limit on them.

Meanwhile the new rules package represents a re-set for everyone, against a background of a cost cap and aero restrictions that will rein in the top teams, and close up the pack.

Thus the Brackley team of next season might not be the all-conquering machine that Hamilton has grown used to, and its continued domination is far from guaranteed.

He got his timing spot-on when he moved to Mercedes – will he do the same when he quits racing?

The debate about Hamilton's future is not going to go away, and he's likely to face regular questions from the media in the coming months.

"It's not like it's my first rodeo," he said at the launch. "I think I've been in this position where at least I've been asked the question for a period of time. I don't really feel pressured in that sense.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes and Toto Wolff, Executive Director (Business), Mercedes AMG

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes and Toto Wolff, Executive Director (Business), Mercedes AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

"Naturally, I continue to have huge belief in, and always bet on, myself – in terms of I know what it takes to deliver. And I think I have an extraordinary relationship with Mercedes that's incredibly deep, and I think there's more than just this racing that we will probably end up doing together.

"As you're already seeing with this [Hamilton] Foundation, there are a lot of great things that we will do moving forwards. So that will be a constant discussion through the year, I'm sure.

"And in terms of whether this is where I want to continue, if this is the road I want to continue down, it will come to me, I'm sure."

All of that suggests that he expects to follow the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss and enjoy a post racing career as a Mercedes ambassador.

Crucially, he can't wait until the end of the season before making a call on his future – Wolff needs to know a lot earlier what his intentions are, as indeed do Russell and Valtteri Bottas. And that looks set to happen long before the 2021 title is decided.

"We have agreed that we want to pick up the discussions much earlier this year to avoid a situation like we had in 2020," Wolff said. "To run out of time and be in the uncomfortable position that there is no time left before the beginning of the season.

"And that's also why we only did a one-year contract, in order to allow us to discuss the future, in racing and outside of racing, longer and with the right amount of time. What we've decided is to discuss things much earlier this year, not at the end of the season."

Wolff is adamant that Hamilton is as motivated as ever.

"No doubt about his commitment. First of all, he enjoys racing, a lot. We enjoy working with each other. And we discussed that a lot.

"The times change. New priorities for all of us in terms of the way we live, our health. He's very passionate about his initiatives, against racism and inequality.

"And then we have this massive regulatory change in 2022, that's going to reshape what F1 will be for the next few years.

"I don't think that this plays a role, to be honest, but I think it's fair enough for a driver that has won seven championships to give himself the flexibility in his mind to decide what he wants to do in the future – whether this is racing, or outside of the circus."

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