There are only 53 days until the 2022 Formula One season gets underway with testing in Barcelona. But as it stands, there is no guarantee Lewis Hamilton will be taking up his position in the Mercedes cockpit.
One of the most controversial finales to a Formula One season in history saw seven-time world champion Hamilton lose his chance to become the most-decorated F1 driver in history.
With half a lap remaining at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, FIA race director Michael Masi allowed lapped cars overtake the safety car — and that gave Max Verstappen, on fresh rubber, a free run to hunt down Hamilton on a set of ailing tyres.
It was not how any F1 fan wanted this championship to end, and the pain that could be heard in Hamilton’s voice on the radio as he witnessed the title being snatched from his hands by Max Verstappen.
Few could blame Hamilton from wanting to escape as quickly as possible after being wronged by the sport he had been a part of for the last 14 years.
Before he did, he and his father Anthony congratulated the Verstappens on a phenomenal victory — a touch of integrity at a time where the sport was severely lacking.
Still, it has been three weeks since Hamilton left the track empty-handed — and no one has heard from the Mercedes star since, at least in public.
There are genuine fears from fans, pundits and drivers that they have seen Hamilton in his racing suit for the last time.
So where is Lewis Hamilton and is he coming back to F1? Mirror Sport looks at the curious situation…
Social media silence
Those who follow Hamilton on social media will attest that the driver posts nearly every day about his workout routine to his 26.4 million followers, whether it’s a jog through New York or a simple weights session.
But since that race in Abu Dhabi, it has been a case of virtual tumbleweed. Complete radio silence.
His brother Nicolas Hamilton, a British Touring Car racer, sought to put fans’ minds to rest by insisting Hamilton was just taking a break from the toxicity that comes hand-in-hand with being a celebrity on Twitter.
It certainly fits the profile of Hamilton’s persona. While he is one of the world’s most famous faces, he likes to spend down time with his family, dog Roscoe and record music at his home studio.
As a spiritual person, this may feel like this period of silence and removing himself from the conversation will help him find his way to F1.
But the longer Hamilton’s social boycott goes on, the more concerned fans of the 2020 world champion will be.
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The unavoidable fact is that no matter how age-defying his driving is on track, Hamilton will be 37 in a weeks’ time. No racing career lasts forever and if Michael Schumacher found it difficult racing in his 40s, anyone would.
There is no reason to doubt Hamilton still holds that passion for racing. But his profile away from the track means he could keep himself busy enough without F1.
Hamilton is a regular attendee of the world’s most glamorous fashion events, and he has also been busy occupying his time trying to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds make their way into the sport through the Hamilton Commission.
Now that he has a new challenger to his domination of the sport in the shape of Max Verstappen, it wouldn’t represent a huge shock to see Hamilton call it quits.
The worrying aspect for the fans is that Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff sounded uncertain when he said he “couldn’t guarantee” his star driver would return for the 2022 season.
If anyone is aware of his plans to retire, Wolff would be one of the first to know.
Has it happened before?
Not exactly, but Hamilton does have a tendency to drag his heels over important decisions.
It was only last year that retirement rumours swirled around his future with Mercedes as his contract was due to expire. There were even suggestions he could make a controversial move to rivals Ferrari, before Carlos Sainz replaced Sebastian Vettel.
It took until January of this year before Hamilton finally committed himself to a new one-year deal. Curiously, he then extended his stay until 2023 only six months later, perhaps feeling content with life working under the German manufacturer.
What we know is this extraordinary driver does not run from a fight. When he lost the 2016 title to Nico Rosberg, the German retired days after clinching the crown, saying he knew that he had accomplished everything he wanted in his career.
Hamilton could have thrown in the towel too after losing out to his team-mate. But he can use that experience of how he went on to win four titles in a row as inspiration to return from his self-imposed exile.
Reasons to stay in F1
The popular opinion is that Hamilton cannot throw away his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to surpass Michael Schumacher’s haul of seven titles.
Even if the purists insist Schumacher is still superior to Hamilton, the Stevenage-born racer has topped nearly every other record in the sport such as most poles and race victories, breaking through. the century milestone on both counts.
But winning the eighth title, in the 2022 season where new regulations bring the cars closer together through technical and financial changes, would prove he is the greatest to grace the sport.
F1 has arguably never been more competitive in the modern era of racing after a long period of Mercedes dominance. And while it would be typical to assume Hamilton would not want that to end, he has remarked about how pleased he was to race so closely with Verstappen.
Verstappen has become only the third driver to beat him in a direct title fight after Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen. But there are others emerging too — Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly — who have displayed their ability to exceed expectations.
To beat the next generation of drivers and make history all in one go is surely too tempting for a man of Hamilton’s competitive makeup.
He always wants to win and after his narrow defeat in 2021, returning next year would show he means business once again to exact revenge on Red Bull.
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