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Will Lewis Hamilton really walk away from F1?

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Mercedes break record for consecutive Constructors Championships (2:12)

Nate Saunders praises Mercedes for their historic year as they claim a seventh Constructors Championship win. (2:12)

Speaking on Sunday evening after winning the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton said there was "no guarantee" he'd stay in Formula One next year.

Naturally, his comments generated a huge amount of interest and speculation, raising questions that had previously seemed fairly well answered.

Prior to Sunday night, there had been an assumption within F1 that it was simply a matter of time until the six-time world champion (soon to be seven-time) signed a new deal with Mercedes. Questions over his next contract have been fired at Hamilton all year, but while he has never expressed 100 percent commitment, he has never left himself as much wiggle room as he did on Sunday evening.

So is Hamilton really considering leaving F1 at the end of this year?

In the interest of putting his comments in the correct context, here are some key quotes from earlier in the year followed by the exact questions and answers from Sunday's news conference below.

Silverstone, July

When Hamilton was asked about his long-term future at the British Grand Prix, he gave the impression that he intended to continue for several years yet.

"In terms of how long I go, that's a bit of an unknown. I would say the COVID lockdown, while it was a negative in many, many ways, in some ways it gave [me] a lot of life, a lot of energy to focus on some other things, and that little bit of time off was really a bit of breathing space, so it's just given me a renewed energy to perhaps go longer.

"Obviously there is a point at which physicality and the mental side can tail off, and I don't know when that's going to be, but I don't see that happening in the short term, in the next two or three years, so I'm definitely going to be here hopefully for the foreseeable future."

Silverstone, August

When teammate Valtteri Bottas renewed his own contract with Mercedes for 2021 at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, Hamilton was asked if he would follow suit.

"I really want to," he said. "I'm sure Toto [Wolff, Mercedes team principal] is probably getting a little bit anxious because I haven't been too forward with it -- like, 'Let's get it done, now!'

"I don't know, I'm just a very chilled individual. I think particularly in a time where people are losing their jobs, I generally honestly feel a little bit awkward with sitting down and talking about numbers and talking about a new contract when there are people out there who are not eating, there are people out there who are starving, there are people out there who have lost their jobs during this pandemic.

"So, I don't know, I feel a little bit awkward with it, that's why I've kind of stepped back a little bit. But, of course, I will do at some stage. But it's awkward -- I'm like, 'How long can I leave it until it's maybe a little bit more normal, things maybe get a little bit better?'

"But I am absolutely 100 percent committed to my team. I'm loyal as ever and I don't lie, so it's not like I'm communicating with someone else -- I don't want to be anywhere else."

Spa-Francorchamps, August

Hamilton was again asked about his contract and why there was a holdup at the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August.

"I'm not one to always just continue to do the same thing, so of course always looking at every detail, making sure every time I do my due diligence, making sure I understand that as we continue to grow together as a team that our values, goals and ambitions continue to stay aligned," he said.

"So that's what you generally go through, to see how things could work better, how you can both get more out of it -- whether it's performance with sponsors, performance on track and how we work with engineers, whether it's more time in the sim, lots and lots of different things.

"Then once you get all those small details out of the way then it comes to the big questions.

"It's not Toto and I's first rodeo together. I think it's an enjoyable experience but we are definitely happy when it's done and we can have a drink together.

"What I do know is I'll have some tequila aside to give him a shot afterwards... maybe I should give him the tequila before to relax him up!"

Portimao, October

One week ago in Portugal, Hamilton was asked if a one-year deal could be a possibility given the financial uncertainty in the world and major regulation changes in F1 for 2022.

"I haven't made any decisions," he said. "I do want to stay and I think when we do sit down, usually we plan in three-year periods, but of course we're in a different time.

"Do I want to continue for three years is also a question. There are many, many questions still to be answered. And we're also going into a new era of car in 2022. So it kind of excites me what could happen in 2022 in terms of what the cars are like.

"I think if you look short term you could say there's going to be companies and businesses that are going out [of business] during this time. Mercedes I would say are on the climb back; I would say they're now in a much better place. Everyone's had a big hit this year.

"But if you look at the future I think the future's bright. I think there's going to be some changes. Ola [Källenius, Mercedes and Daimler CEO] came out with a new plan that Mercedes have moving forwards in terms of sustainability, in terms of pushing their cars more towards electric, and the same with AMG, so I think the future's bright.

"These are all things that we will naturally think about, but I think I've earned the right or the position so far to be able to stay for a decent amount of time, so time will tell. I can't really say too much more. Hopefully you'll hear something in the next couple of months."

Imola, November

Finally, at Imola following his 93rd victory and Mercedes' seventh word title, the following questions led to the following answers.

Question: "Toto's just been on Sky saying that he's reached the end of his shelf life in his current position. He's earmarked a replacement, he's not saying who it is, the big indication, of course, is that he's not going to be within the same role next year. With that in mind, just how concerned are you about next year and -- obviously we're a long way off -- but the fact that he won't be there... You talk about the big effect he has in the team. If he's not there to lead the team, are there any concerns going forward that he won't be able to repeat this same level of success that you've had this year?"

Hamilton: "I don't even know if I'm going to be here next year, so it's not really a concern for me at the moment. No, I think I understand and we have a lot of deep conversations, Toto and I, so I'm very, very aware of where he is mentally and we share a lot of ... and carry a lot of the weight together, I think.

"Jeez, yeah, I've been in a long, long time. I can definitely understand wanting to pull back and give more time to family and those things. I don't know who he would replaced but again, he's a leader, he's not going to put anyone that's not going to be able to do the job, not going to be up to it, who's not going to be geared up. He will find the right people. That's why we have the success we have. We've found the right people and put them in the position to be able to shine as bright as possible.

"He's just empowered every single person in the team to be the best they can be. So he will find somebody that's able to take on and continue... But you know, it's not one person. The team is not about one person, it's a collective of a lot of people. Toto doesn't build the car, it's a real team effort. But I'm supportive of him, whatever he wants to do, moving forwards."

The "I don't even know if I'm going to be here next year" start to that answer rang a few alarm bells, leading to a follow-up question several minutes later.

Question: "Lewis, I just wanted to follow up on something you said earlier. You said you don't even know if you're going to be here next year. Most take it as a given that you're going to sign another contract with Mercedes, but is there actually a real chance that you won't be racing in Formula One next year?

Hamilton: "Well, we're in November and I'm still... it's crazy that Christmas isn't that far away. Naturally, I feel great, I still feel very strong, I feel like I could keep going for plenty of months, but you know.

"You mentioned about Toto and shelf life so there's multiple things that do stay on the top of my mind but I would like to be here next year but there's no guarantee of that, for sure. There's a lot that excites me of the after life so time will tell."


What does it all mean?

The delay in signing a deal up to now was believed to be down to a desire to secure both drivers' and constructors' championships first combined with a lack of free time to negotiate during a busy race schedule.

Hamilton has also listed events outside F1 (see his second Silverstone answer above) as a reason not to focus on it, while Wolff has mentioned the more practical complexities of meeting up under social distancing rules.

But throughout it has always seemed like a formality waiting to happen -- a case of dotting the i's and crossing the t's. So has that really changed in recent weeks?

Only Hamilton knows the answer for certain, but from the outside there would be no reason for a change of heart.

Mercedes secured its seventh constructors' championship at Imola on Sunday and Hamilton will almost certainly secure his seventh drivers' title at one of the coming races. If he stays for another season in 2021, he will have the best possible opportunity to add an eighth championship, meaning he would surpass Michael Schumacher's record and stand alone as the driver with the most titles.

Wolff, who is both Hamilton's negotiating partner in his contract talks and a close friend, believes Sunday's comments were born from the unique stresses of coming to the end of the 2020 F1 season.

"I think it's the moment and the emotions, we are all happy but very tired also," he said.

"It's the same for me. I completely relate with his feeling, that you question yourself and you think about all the other things that matter when you switch on the news in the morning and you switch it off in the evening it is all about the struggles that we all face.

"We are here in our little happy place and we are trying to bring some entertainment into households, but then you are back in the more difficult reality the next day. All of that is something that affects us and, in that respect, it's normal for someone who is apathetic to have these feelings."

Does Hamilton have other options?

Red Bull still has a seat open for 2021, but there is zero logic in Hamilton leaving Mercedes to join Max Verstappen next year.

It's unthinkable that Hamilton would go to another team before the major regulation change in 2022 at the earliest, and he has been careful to rule that out ever since rumours of a switch to Ferrari surfaced towards the end of last year.

Equally, there is no one Mercedes would want to take over for Hamilton, and all the other top drivers are under contract for 2021 anyway.

For Hamilton, it appears to be a simple choice between staying with Mercedes in 2021 or leaving the sport.

The lack of options for both sides also means there is no urgency to put pen to paper. Hamilton could end this season in Abu Dhabi without a contract and still have a place on the grid in the best car open to him for 2021.

That kind of trust between the two allows Hamilton time to think and negotiate the terms he wants, right down to the smallest detail. Why commit to extra media commitments, for example, when you have the negotiating power to spend your time focusing on things you consider more important?

If there is a sticking point in the negotiations, Hamilton's comments on Sunday may have been an attempt to flush the deal through by spooking Mercedes into thinking he could actually leave. But for at least another couple of months, both sides of the negotiating table can continue to pull a poker face without the threat of going bust at the end of the year.

How does Wolff fit into this?

While it's Wolff's job to lead negotiations with Hamilton on Mercedes' behalf, he too has yet to commit to the team beyond the end of this year. The 48-yer-old Austrian is currently negotiating with parent company Daimler over how his position will change and is expected to move from a team principal role to that of an executive director in 2021.

Wolff's negotiations are complicated by a 30 percent shareholding in the team, which is up for review but something he is keen to keep hold of.

"With me and Mercedes it is pretty much clear," Wolff said on Sunday. "It is just down to putting pen on paper at the right moment. I was also concentrating on bringing these championships home and it was not right to spend days with lawyers when I am so focused on what is happening on track.

"This is where Lewis and I are very similar. It just didn't feel right to sit down before those championships are done. There will be a moment when the drivers' championship is decided and we will have a few months before the first race happens in Australia."

Wolff also described the "symbiosis" he has with Hamilton -- something that has been backed up by Hamilton's own comments several times this year.

It's likely Hamilton has been reluctant to sign until he knows Wolff's position beyond 2020, and it would not be unreasonable to demand full knowledge of the team's succession plan before committing to the next two or three years.

Major regulation changes are on the horizon in 2022 and are designed to break Mercedes' dominance, so Hamilton is right to wait for full visibility of how the team will tackle them and the people that will lead that process.

But take the "symbiosis" quote a step further and you could suggest that Hamilton and Wolff are working together to get the best deal for one another. By creating some doubt about his own future and tying himself to Wolff, Hamilton strengthens both their positions in their separate negotiations with Mercedes, who would suffer a significant loss in PR exposure if it lost its star driver.

It may be a cynical take on the situation, but it would tie together the comments made by Wolff and Hamilton over the current delay.

What happens next?

Hamilton has set new records this year and has often talked about how he still has several years of prime career left in him. At 35 years of age a sabbatical could be an option, but it's unlikely he would return at the same level and with the same momentum that he has right now.

His fame and influence, which he has used so eloquently and powerfully this year to add his voice to important social issues, is at its peak while he continues in F1. That's not to say he wouldn't enjoy success and influence in a different field, but in F1 he has a powerful global platform on which to build all his other interests.

With that in mind, and taking the balance of everything he has said this year about his future, it seems unlikely he won't be on the grid in a Mercedes next year. But ultimately the decision rests with Hamilton and Hamilton alone.