GUEST COLUMN: Should Mercedes be Preparing for the Post-Hamilton Era?

© Wolfgang Wilhelm for Daimler AG

By Harry Woollands

Lewis Hamilton will go down in Formula One history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all time. With six world titles and 84 victories, he seems set on becoming statistically the greatest driver over the next year.

Over the last week, we have had some important pieces in the 2021 drivers puzzle put into place, and naturally, the biggest news from this is that Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have decided not to renew their contract with each other. This has led to speculation about where he will drive next year and, with McLaren and Renault seemingly unavailable, talk of Vettel moving to Mercedes has surfaced. It appears, at least for now, the options for Vettel are limited: try and negotiate a move to Mercedes, or retire.

On the surface it appears to be a dream move for both Vettel and Mercedes. Vettel would receive a drive at the dominant team of the last decade and Mercedes would receive a four-time world champion, a German driver in a German team; a PR dream. For fans throughout the F1 community, the move is what we have all been waiting for, the two most successful drivers of their era in the same team. I have to admit, even I have been sucked into the possibility of the two battling it out for supremacy; it would be incredible.

However, for Mercedes the move would make zero sense. They already have a lead driver in Hamilton, would they really risk a dynamic such as the Hamilton/Rosberg divide just a few years ago? Vettel would almost certainly want a deal longer than one year; two at a minimum. The problem for me is very clear: Mercedes need to prepare for the post-Hamilton era, and employing a driver coming towards the end of his career is exactly the opposite of what they need to do.

When reading this, some wouldn’t understand. Mercedes have won the past six drivers’ and constructors’ doubles; why would Lewis stop? For me, there are a few reasons. One is age, something nobody can escape. Lewis is currently 35, coming towards the retirement age for modern F1 drivers. Another is motivation. Lewis seems fully motivated, but once he matches Schumacher’s titles and eclipses his number of Grand Prix wins, could the impossible happen; he grows bored with the sport? Also, what if the 2022 rule changes rattle Mercedes? After so many years of fighting for championships, would Lewis be content with sticking around, fighting for 5th place? The final factor, and one I believe to be the biggest, are his activities outside of Formula 1. Lewis has already released his first song and is now a famous designer within Tommy Hilfiger, something he has expressed joy about, something he wants to continue doing. My point is, Lewis isn’t going to stick around forever, and he may go sooner than we all think.

So let’s, for example, say that Mercedes sign Vettel; a two-year deal, taking him to the end of 2022. Lewis renews his contract, for the same length. But then, due to the new rules, Mercedes fall from grace; they don’t fight for championships. Lewis and Sebastian decide they can’t do that, both retire at the end of 2022. Where does this leave Mercedes? The team who fought for championships just a year ago suddenly find themselves without a single driver.

For me, this is the big risk of signing Vettel. Mercedes need to prepare for the eventual retirement of Lewis, and they should do this through promoting a younger driver. George Russell is the obvious candidate. With Esteban Ocon on loan at Renault and unable to be contractually recalled until 2024, Russell is more than likely to lead the charge for the Mercedes seat if one becomes available. If one does, it would make sense for Mercedes to promote Russell and, by doing so, prepare itself for the future, a future without Lewis Hamilton.

However, the whole scenario, whether it is Vettel or Russell moving to Mercedes, relies on one person, and they are the one person I haven’t mentioned at all. Valtteri Bottas. The assumption that Valtteri will be replaced at the end of the season is anything but a certainty. Since moving to the team Valtteri has played a crucial role in obtaining the constructors’ championship every single year and has proven he is a great team player, helping Lewis in his quest for the championship while also maintaining a friendly bond with his teammate, something Lewis and Rosberg were unable to do. Valtteri has proven he can win races and, without Lewis, I can honestly see him becoming team leader in the future. In short, I would not be surprised in the slightest if Mercedes re-signs Valtteri; he completely deserves it.

Overall, it seems only logical for Mercedes to prepare for the post-Hamilton era, rather than take the huge risk in signing Sebastian Vettel. Whether that is through promoting young George Russell, or retaining Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes have the ability to set themselves up for the future. Whilst the dream of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel  in the same team is currently still available, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Mercedes announces Valtteri or Russell in the near future.

Be sure to follow Harry Woollands on Twitter @MotorsportMerc!

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