ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- If the rumours are true and Lewis Hamilton is in talks with Ferrari, his performance in Abu Dhabi was the ultimate sales pitch. His pole position, fastest lap and consummate race win neatly summed up a season in which he has been the class of the field. He might not be the answer to all of Ferrari's problems right now, but if anyone is going to make the difference in a title fight, it's him.
So could Hamilton really be considering one last roll of the dice to finish his career in red? At 34 years of age, he likely has one -- maybe two -- contracts left to sign before he retires from Formula One, making the decision all the more difficult. On the face of it, staying at Mercedes makes more sense -- it's where he's won five of his six titles after all -- but Ferrari ... well, it's Ferrari.
Before the Abu Dhabi race weekend, there was little doubt he would sign an extension with Mercedes when his current contract expires at the end of 2020. He was regularly talking about his loyalty to the team and his desire to work with the German car company after he retires, but in Abu Dhabi the mood music changed.
The rumours started when Ferrari team principal, Mattia Binotto, gave a cryptic answer to a question about Hamilton's contract situation for 2021. Asked whether he was interested in the British driver, he said "knowing that he's available in 2021 can make us only happy". It then emerged that Hamilton had met twice with Ferrari's chairman, John Elkann, something Hamilton did not deny when given the opportunity to do so on Sunday night.
But let's not get carried away; all of the above does not amount to a sensational switch in 2021. It's true that Hamilton holds the best cards in his negotiations -- a position he has earned with his performances in recent years -- but there is as much keeping him at Mercedes as there is luring him away to Ferrari, and both sides still have a good chance of getting their man.
Will Ferrari offer a car worthy of a six-time world champion?
Despite being the biggest name in motorsport, Ferrari has not won a drivers' championship since 2007. That title drought weighs heavy on the team, and the pressure to end it -- internally and from the entire nation of Italy -- has undoubtedly contributed to its recent failings.
In Binotto, the race team now has a level head at the helm, but his first year in charge can hardly be described as a success. The team made fundamental mistakes in its car concept at the start of the year and, save for a purple patch of three successive wins between the Belgian Grand Prix and the Singapore Grand Prix, the team has underperformed in 2019. Compared with Mercedes, which has been riding a wave since the last major engine regulation change in 2014, Ferrari looks like a weak option for Hamilton.
But in 2021, all teams will be forced to go back to the drawing board thanks to an overhaul of the technical regulations, which is aimed at closing the gaps between the teams and making the sport more competitive. Ferrari has all the resources in place to emerge as a contender after the rules shake-up and, if shown under a kind light, 2019 could be seen as a transitional year for the Italian team.
What's more, while the 2021 overhaul influences almost every facet of chassis design, it will not impact the engines. In recent years, Ferrari has taken the lead in power unit performance, while Mercedes' strengths have increasingly shifted to its chassis and aerodynamic design. If Hamilton believes the reset in regulations will give Maranello the opportunity to make up ground in its weakest areas while retaining its strengths, a set of red overalls might seem increasingly appealing.
There are no crystal balls in F1, but Hamilton has strong form in this kind of decision-making. In 2013 he moved to Mercedes, which had won one race since returning to the sport in 2010, and away from McLaren, which had been regular race winners. He was ridiculed for the decision at the time, but by the start of 2014 there was little doubt he had made the right move, and five drivers' championships over the following six years underlined that.
If any driver is going to make the right move for 2021, history suggests it will be Hamilton.
The Hamilton legacy
A move to Ferrari wouldn't just impact the last few seasons of Hamilton's F1 career, it would also impact his legacy in the sport and his options after retirement. He is currently one title away from equalling Michael Schumacher's record of seven championships and could secure that next year if he maintains his current form into 2020. However, if he doesn't -- or even if he does and he has ambitions of standing alone on eight world titles in the record books -- a move to Ferrari, with the uncertainty over the Italian team's competitiveness, could leave him just shy of becoming statistically the best driver of all time.
On the other hand, Hamilton would be a hero in Italy if he proved to be the man who returned Ferrari to the very top of the sport. What's more, by moving teams, he would have the potential to eclipse Schumacher in another way by becoming the first driver since Juan Manuel Fangio to win the title with more than two teams. It would also tick the box of driving for the most famous team in motorsport history -- one thing Mercedes will never be able to offer.
Yet Hamilton has never spoken publicly about a desire to break records or drive for Ferrari. He has always maintained that he is on his own journey and regularly shrugs off comparisons with the greats of the sport -- even if he acknowledges the significance of their achievements. Marrying the Ferrari and Hamilton brands would be box office for F1, but the Hamilton story is deeply entwined with Mercedes -- something Hamilton often references, having been powered by a Mercedes engine at every stage of his F1 career since his debut in 2007.
He has also talked about how he sees a long-term future with Mercedes beyond Formula One. In recent years he has highlighted his concerns about climate change and has spoken about his desire to work with Mercedes' parent company, Daimler, to produce more environmentally friendly cars in the future. Hamilton owns Ferraris -- reportedly he has two LaFerraris, one Aperta and one hard top -- but he has also talked about selling some of his supercars as part of his plans to align his personal life with his green messaging.
While Mercedes is investing heavily in electric vehicles, Ferrari has only just released its first plug-in hybrid and is undoubtedly a worse fit with the environmental message Hamilton is trying to push. Looking beyond his racing career, there is a strong argument for Hamilton staying with Mercedes if he intends to continue to play a part in the motor industry after his retirement.
Mercedes' commitment to F1
Speaking on Sunday night, Hamilton referenced the future of Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff in his decision. The 47-year-old Austrian owns 30 percent of the Mercedes F1 team but has been linked to the top job in F1 amid speculation current CEO Chase Carey will stand down once the 2021 regulation changes are delivered.
"I know Toto is also looking at his options in terms of his future, and only he will know what is the best thing for him and his family," Hamilton said on Sunday night. "So I'm waiting to see what he's doing with that."
Wolff has consistently talked about how he is motivated by his current role at Mercedes, but has also been careful not to rule anything out. Asked about his future on Sunday night, and the obvious connection it has to Hamilton's, the Mercedes team boss said the decision is more likely based on a number of key individuals staying at the team.
"We have started this Mercedes journey together in 2013, and over these seven years, I think the trust between us has grown, and has been a contributing factor to our success," Wolff said. "Of course from a personal level, we both want to know what the other one does. Equally, there is so many other team members, contributors to the performance that are equally as important as Lewis or myself.
"I think the most important is to understand who that is, who has contributed, whether they are still motivated and energised, and I think as much as I am visible in the media, Lewis will also be interested to know if the team stays together overall. So I think it's just exploring whether what we have built together is still intact, and in a way energised to push the needle further."
Then there is the question of Mercedes' commitment to F1. Last week, Daimler announced 10,000 job cuts over the next three years as it pushes towards a future based around electric vehicles. There's a strong argument that says running an F1 team does not sit well with either of those statements, especially as F1 has no plan to go fully electric in the next 10 years, but Wolff believes there is still a long-term future for Mercedes in F1 based purely on the strength of the marketing opportunities.
"I am the one that is responsible for Mercedes' motor racing activities, but I'm also the first one to acknowledge that in times when the auto industry is changing that all activities need to be looked at. Formula One and motor racing generally is an activity that we believe is powerful, our core DNA. The first ever Mercedes was a race car.
"I think we need to become more efficient, I think we need to provide a solid business case. We need to reduce the contribution from Daimler into our exercise, and if we are able to achieve that, then we're in Formula One for the long term."
Mercedes is currently in negotiations over a new commercial deal with F1 beyond 2021, and Hamilton will be able to see some of Daimler's level of commitment. That, combined with Wolff's own commitment, will likely be a key factor in his decision over whether he remains at Mercedes.
A strengthened negotiating position
One final factor to consider is that all the talk of a move to Ferrari only strengthens Hamilton's hand when negotiating with Mercedes. Wolff believes there is a 75 percent chance his star driver will stay beyond 2020, but the remaining 25 percent allows Hamilton to play hardball over his new contract.
What's more, if this is Hamilton's last contract in F1, that also holds intrinsic value. The only way Hamilton can realise the true value of that is exploring his options elsewhere and using the two teams to ratchet up his price. Realistically, Mercedes and Ferrari are the only F1 teams capable of meeting his demands while still supplying a race-winning car, so in leaving everything on the table going into the winter, he should be able to ensure he gets the best deal.
But Hamilton's value extends beyond his prodigious ability to race cars, and that's largely thanks to a personal brand he has meticulously built via his powerful presence on social media. For Mercedes and its sponsors, Hamilton remains a key part of a number of marketing strategies and would be impossible to replace with any of the other drivers on the grid should he go to Ferrari.
Hamilton also has personal endorsements that he will want to retain as they represent business interests he hopes to extend beyond his racing career. Ensuring he has the ability to expand those deals, such as his collaboration with fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger, will be an important part of his negotiations, and it's likely Mercedes will be able to offer more continuity and flexibility in that regard.
On the other hand, pairing with Ferrari has the potential to raise Hamilton's brand to an all-new level. It remains the biggest brand in motor racing, and it has a global appeal that simply can't be matched by any other team on the grid. Historically, Ferrari has always maintained that there is no driver bigger than the team -- even Michael Schumacher was eventually replaced by Kimi Raikkonen -- but the team's partners will see a huge amount of value in getting Hamilton on board. Ferrari could prove a trickier team to deal with for Hamilton, yet the lure of the two brands coming together could be too big for either side to resist.
Ultimately only Hamilton knows what's best for him. He will have to live with the sporting consequences of whichever deal he strikes, and for a driver so used to winning in recent years, that will likely be the overriding factor in his decision. He has time on his side, with Mercedes vowing not to negotiate with other drivers, such as Red Bull's Max Verstappen, until they know where they stand with Hamilton.
Meanwhile, Ferrari have Charles Leclerc contracted beyond 2020, so they can fully entertain the prospect of bringing Hamilton to the team in the knowledge they have at least one world-class driver already under contract. The identity of Hamilton's teammate might be another factor for him to consider, but he has never ducked out of a fight or demanded No.1 status at any point in his career. It would be a surprise if Hamilton balked at going up against Leclerc, although if Mercedes is serious about Verstappen that could be another plus point for moving to Ferrari.
Ultimately, Hamilton holds the answer to these questions and with it the keys to next year's driver market. There's plenty to think about over the winter, and at this stage he isn't ruling anything out. "I love where I am, so it's obviously not a quick decision to go do something else," he said on Sunday. "But I think it's only smart and wise for me to sit and think of what I want and if it is the last stage of my career.
"I want to keep winning and to keep being able to fight with these guys [Leclerc and Max Verstappen] as well. I can't really tell you what else is going to happen moving forwards."