It’s one of the bigger 2023 stories that won’t go away just yet: Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes F1 contract extension. There’s less of the “will they, won’t they?” energy we had a month ago when the Daily Mail was reporting a big-money Ferrari offer, but with both parties involved in this deal more than keen to get this done, what’s the hold-up?
Lewis was ecstatic with his second-place finish last time out in Spain and when he was asked afterwards about his contract talks, he said: “Well, I haven’t signed anything yet, but I think we’re going to meet with Toto tomorrow. So hopefully, we can get something done.”
Wolff echoed the sentiment, saying: “I think we just need to get time to sit over coffee. That’s going to take half an hour.”
And yet… nothing since. If this is such a straightforward process, at what point does it become fair to ask the question about what the hold-up is?
You survey the lay of the land in terms of potential suitors for Lewis and you have easy reasons to dismiss them. Red Bull has the best car in F1, a solid de facto number two in Sergio Perez, and Max Verstappen, arguably the best driver in the world right now. Aston Martin has Fernando Alonso tied down until at least the end of 2024 and is driving as well as he has in years, with Lance Stroll less comfortable but unlikely to be moved as long as his Dad’s still chairman of the board.
The Ferrari rumours were quickly dismissed by all parties in Monaco last month, and even if it was on the table it’s hard to justify Ferrari moving on from either driver at the moment with far bigger issues that Maranello need to address, like their car being a butcher to its tyres and lacking race pace. Remember, they’ve had just one podium so far this season.
No one else in the field is showing even glimpses of the pace needed for Hamilton, a man desperate for an eighth title, to consider moving. So purely in terms of competitive reasons, a move anywhere else seems unlikely.
It may just boil down to how many years Lewis wants to commit to. At his age – 38 – teams like to commit less to lengthy deals to better manoeuvre in the driver market. And as a driver, it never hurts to have an “exit plan” with the competitive balance constantly shifting.
Off-track factors are also viable. When Hamilton was negotiating for a new deal heading into the 2021 season, he wasn’t confirmed to be staying with the team until the first week of February, just days before testing for the season began.
There were rumours at the time regarding what to do with George Russell, who massively impressed as a Covid replacement in Bahrain in 2020, as well as the later-defunct rumours about a salary cap coming in that, could potentially have harmed the income of one of motorsport’s biggest-ever earners. Let’s not forget, that the figure rumoured for Ferrari’s 2024 offer was £40million a year, a salary on the level of LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo and Patrick Mahomes. Gotta think about the bag, right?
It turns out that the main roadblock in 2021 was Hamilton’s activism. As well as delaying contract talks until after the 2020 season was over, he was also setting up “Mission 44”, a charity partnership with his Mercedes team to help better represent underprivileged groups in the UK. That process required a lot of paperwork, resources and time – especially with big money involved with Hamilton committing £20m of his own wealth towards the project.
With the two parties joined at the hip as one of the most iconic driver/team pairings in F1 history, sorting out their priorities on and off the track is an important factor, especially with Lewis turning 39 in January and probably limited in how many years he has left in F1, as is what he and Mercedes do after Lewis inevitably hangs up the gloves.
In any case, it is odd that a team and driver that have always seemed made for each other keep leaving their fans on tenterhooks about extending their relationship.
Surely Hamilton signs on the dotted line soon, right?