F1

Lewis Hamilton gears up for Mercedes farewell but Red Bull rule set to continue

The Briton will join Ferrari next year.

Lewis Hamilton is gearing up for his final season with Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton Lewis Hamilton is gearing up for his final season with Mercedes (Tim Goode/PA)

“If Lewis were to leave,” pondered George Russell as he addressed the prospect of Hamilton joining Ferrari. “That would put Mercedes in a tricky spot. It would almost look like he’s lost faith in the team.”

Russell was speaking in an episode of Netflix’s newly-released Drive to Survive series – a chapter the Mercedes’ PR machine envisaged would celebrate Hamilton’s decision to stay with them.

Hamilton, after all, had signed a two-year contract extension last August to remain with the Silver Arrows until the end of 2025.

Lewis Hamilton has won six of his seven world championships with Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton Lewis Hamilton has won six of his seven world championships with Mercedes (Tim Goode/PA)

But following Hamilton’s shock decision to tear up his contract a year early in favour of a move to Ferrari, Russell’s remarks – too late to be pulled from Netflix’s sixth season – shed a very public spotlight on the awkward dynamic that faces the grid’s once-dominant team and its superstar driver ahead of the new season which starts in Bahrain on Saturday night.

Mercedes transformed Hamilton from a man with a single world championship to a one-man winning machine. He has seven world championships and 103 victories. No other driver in history can boast such an impressive resume.

But Hamilton is motivated by capturing the eighth title he believes he was robbed of in Abu Dhabi in 2021. And the 39-year-old no longer thinks he can achieve the record-breaking feat with Mercedes. As Russell would say, he’s lost the faith.

Can Hamilton be blamed? He has not tasted victory for two years. Mercedes did not win one of the 22 rounds last season. He heads into the new campaign as a 16/1 underdog to win the championship.

This year is being called Hamilton’s last dance with Mercedes. But do not expect it to be a samba.

Mercedes will remain at the sharp end of the grid this season. They have ditched the concept that has failed them so miserably for the past two years and introduced a new design philosophy – one that both Hamilton and Russell said is more predictable and easier to drive.

But will it possess the speed to knock Red Bull and Max Verstappen off their perch?

F1 works in cycles and, although Mercedes carried Hamilton to six championships in seven glorious years, this period in time belongs to the team from Milton Keynes, despite the on-going controversy surrounding its team principal Christian Horner and allegations of inappropriate behaviour made against him by a female colleague.

Horner continues to deny the claims and a resolution is expected before Saturday’s curtain raiser.

Red Bull swept all before them in 2023, winning every race bar one, with Verstappen taking 19 victories as he waltzed to a hat-trick of titles.

Such was their superiority, Red Bull and their genius designer Adrian Newey could afford to start work on this year’s challenger long before the others.

Max Verstappen starts the season as the favourite to win the championship (Darkio Bandic/AP)
Max Verstappen Max Verstappen starts the season as the favourite to win the championship (Darkio Bandic/AP) (Darko Bandic/AP)

And the finished product, unveiled in all its glory at last week’s test, sent shivers down the spines of their competitors. The fear, for those not in a Red Bull cockpit, is that Newey’s latest masterpiece is an improvement on its brilliant predecessor.

Given the sport’s rule book is largely unchanged and the budget cap means rival teams can no longer break the bank to discover a winning solution, Verstappen heads into this mammoth 24-round campaign as the favourite to become only the sixth driver in history with four world titles to his name.

Alarmingly for the neutrals, Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, has predicted this season will be “one long victory lap” for Verstappen and his all-conquering team – and that’s before a wheel has been turned in anger.

But all is not lost – and that is when we return to Hamilton.

While Verstappen could prove an unstoppable force on track, Hamilton’s agonisingly long goodbye with Mercedes – one that is set to stretch nine months and six days – will provide a fascinating subplot.