Lewis Hamilton stands on the brink of becoming the most successful Formula One driver of all time but a record-equalling seventh world title looks more certain than his racing future.
Speaking after he won the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola on Sunday, the 93rd victory of his F1 career, and his Mercedes team took a record seventh successive constructors’ championship, the Briton raised doubts.
“I would like to be here next year but there’s no guarantee of that, for sure,” Hamilton told reporters after going a mighty 85 points clear of team mate Valtteri Bottas with four races remaining.
“There’s a lot that excites me of the after (F1) life so time will tell.”
His words could be seen as an early shot in negotiations with Mercedes over a new deal — worth many tens of millions — rather than a serious statement of intent, yet they still shook assumptions.
Hamilton is out of contract next month and, in this strangest of seasons, teams are having to contend with new financial realities and pressures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I guess if Lewis were to decide to step out of Formula One, which I don’t think will happen, we are going to have a frantic driver market out there,” said team boss Toto Wolff, who did not sound too concerned.
“But I think it’s the moment and the emotions, we are all happy but very tired also. It’s the same for me.”
It would be a major shock if the Briton followed the example of former team mate Nico Rosberg, who retired immediately after winning the 2016 title.
Speaking to Sky Sports last month, Hamilton said a new deal was ‘probably’ a formality, that he had yet to hit his peak and planned to race on.
He has also spoken about using his platform to push for change in society, on questions of racial injustice and diversity.
Mercedes want him to stay but the question is how much they are prepared to pay and how long Hamilton wants to commit for, particularly with Wolff intending to stand back from the day-to-day running of the team.
The Austrian, a shareholder in the team, has said he is working on the succession and a new, undefined executive role.
Hamilton described Wolff on Sunday as “the best boss you could have.”
The Briton’s future will become clearer once he wins the championship, with the stage set for title celebrations in Turkey in two weeks’ time, but it is hard to see him not staying for a shot at an eighth title and 100 wins and poles.
The cars are staying the same next year and Hamilton has said he is keen to see how 2022 pans out with a major revamp of the regulations.
Hamilton, winner of nine races so far this year, will equal Ferrari great Michael Schumacher’s record seven titles in Istanbul if Bottas fails to score seven points more than him.
Bottas, now Hamilton’s sole rival, has managed that only twice this season.