Hamilton-Mercedes remains an 'obvious pairing', says Wolff

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LONDON -- Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff believes Mercedes will always be able to attract the fastest drivers as long as it is producing the best car on the grid.

With testing for the new Formula One season about to get underway next week, Wolff is in the process of opening contract negotiations with Lewis Hamilton to keep the six-time world champion at the team beyond of his current contract, which expires at the end of the year.

Hamilton has been at Mercedes since 2013, but a meeting with Ferrari president John Elkann last year led to speculation he might leave when new regulations are introduced in 2021. At the final race of the 2019 season in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton said it would be "smart" to keep his options open, but refused to comment on the meeting with Elkann.

Since Abu Dhabi, Hamilton's negotiating position appears to have been strengthened by Red Bull signing Max Verstappen until 2023 and Ferrari signing Charles Leclerc until 2024. Those two drivers -- who are both more than ten years younger than Hamilton -- would have been obvious replacements for Hamilton at Mercedes before they were tied down to long-term deals.

Wolff is still hoping to renew Hamilton's existing agreement, but said he was not unduly worried by two of the sport's most promising talents signing for Mercedes' two biggest rivals for the long term.

"Looking at Max and Charles, these guys will always try to be in the fastest cars," he said at the unveiling of Mercedes' 2020 livery. "Contracts are contracts, probably sometimes it is the details which are important, not the overhead line of how long a contract has been signed.

"Therefore, I see our duty in providing a car which is the quickest, and then we will not run out of talents who are eager to drive these cars.

"We also have very exciting young drivers who are part of the Mercedes family, like George Russell, who is a Mercedes junior driver, who we foresee a bright future and we have Esteban [Ocon], who is not far away, who is with Renault today, but is a cousin of the Mercedes family today."

Wolff revealed that he and Hamilton had decided to put contract talks on hold over the winter so that both sides could relax between the final race of 2019 and the first race of 2020. And he remains confident that Hamilton will extend his deal into 2021 in the belief that Mercedes will continue to have the fastest car.

"I think it is an obvious pairing going forward," Wolff added. "We would like to have the fastest man in the car and I know that Lewis wants to be in the fastest car, so there is an obvious mutual outcome.

"We travel around the world for almost 10 months of the year and we get on each other's nerves almost every second weekend, and what we do over the winter is we leave each other in peace.

"The last conversation I had with him was on the evening of the Christmas party and we had a nice chat that we would start our discussion when he gets back from America and we kick off the season. I have great belief in the ability of this team to attract the best drivers and Lewis proved that he is the best driver with his six titles and in the medium- and long-term.

"I would hope that we are able to continue to provide technology to the best driver and attract them."