Lewis Hamilton dropped an unprompted bombshell that he might not be racing in Formula 1 next year, despite standing on the verge of re-writing history in the sport - so what would Mercedes do if he quit? 

A 93rd career victory at Imola means Hamilton is now within touching distance of equalling Michael Schumacher’s unrivalled benchmark of seven world championships, with the prospect of a record-breaking eighth drivers’ crown seemingly there for the taking in 2021.

Hamilton’s admission of there being “no guarantee” he will be on the grid next season, coupled with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff talking about not wanting to stay beyond his “shelf life”, has thrown some unexpected uncertainty into the mix during what has already been a confusing and bizarre year amid unprecedented times with the ongoing global situation. 

In reality, it is highly unlikely that Hamilton would quit F1’s most successful team, notwithstanding ongoing delays to negotiations over a fresh contract. 

"I guess if he were to decide to step out of Formula 1, which I don't think it's going to happen, and I hope it's not going to happen, then I think we're going to have a pretty frantic driver market out there," said Wolff when asked for a response to Hamilton’s comments. 

Wolff’s foreshadowing of a “pretty frantic” driver market in the event of a Hamilton departure was an intriguing hypothetical concept, and it got us thinking about how Mercedes and the rest of the grid would react if Hamilton decided to stun the sport and call time on his illustrious F1 career…

The dream replacement 

A Hamilton exit would leave a gaping hole for Mercedes to fill with the loss of its star driver, who has claimed five of its six drivers titles so far and won a total of 72 races in the German manufacturer’s colours. 

For the second time in five seasons, Mercedes would be left scrabbling around to find a candidate to replace its world champion late in the year, just as it had to back in 2016 after Nico Rosberg surprised the team by walking away from F1 five days after winning his maiden title. 

Finding a driver to replace Hamilton would be a huge task, but Mercedes' number one target must be an attempt to prize Max Verstappen away from Red Bull. 

There is much speculation over the nature of Verstappen’s contract and whether it includes some form of performance-related exit clause - possibly relating to Honda - although this has been refuted on a number of occasions by Red Bull. 

Contracts often mean very little in F1 (just ask Sergio Perez) and one would imagine that Mercedes’ full attention would be on securing Verstappen’s services. 

When discussing the prospect of a Hamilton-Verstappen Mercedes super team last month on F1’s Beyond The Grid podcast, Wolff said he did not expect Verstappen to be a Mercedes driver in the near future, adding “the situation around Max doesn’t provide any opportunity now”. 

But Hamilton leaving would likely alter Wolff’s thinking. While a Verstappen-Hamilton partnership might have all the ingredients for a destabilising intra-team nuclear fallout, a Verstappen-Bottas line-up would be far more appealing from a Mercedes perspective. 

Bottas has been a strong back-up to Hamilton and his valuable contribution has helped Mercedes win the past four teams’ titles. The Finn has also played the subordinate role for the overall benefit of the team when called upon. 

Naturally, it would be fair to expect that Verstappen would jump at the chance to join the all-conquering Mercedes juggernaut, particularly with the Red Bull-Honda project ceasing at the end of 2021. 

This would in turn provide Red Bull a real headache for its own driver plans for next year, given that it is already weighing up whether to stick or twist with Alex Albon. 

The loss of Verstappen would be a monumental blow, but a sensible fall back option for Red Bull would be to re-promote Pierre Gasly, who has already been confirmed as staying put at the AlphaTauri sister team for 2021 after his stunning 2020 campaign. 

Red Bull’s second seat could perhaps go to Perez or Nico Hulkenberg should the team decide Albon needs to return to AlphaTauri in order to rediscover his confidence alongside rookie Yuki Tsunoda, whose chances of landing an F1 drive next year are increasing by the day. 

The alternative option from within 

Should Verstappen not be available, promoting its junior George Russell from Williams would make sense, although it would come sooner than originally planned. 

A Russell-Bottas partnership might be seen as a significantly weakened line-up on paper, but it could prove to be a masterstroke in a similar manner to when Ferrari promoted the highly-rated but inexperienced Charles Leclerc, who has gone on to become a sensation at Maranello. 

Mercedes views Russell as a future world champion and the Briton is being lined up as the succession plan for when Hamilton does eventually retire, but would he be ready for the step up next year? 

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Crash.net back in July, Russell insisted he would have been “absolutely ready” to drive for the reigning world champions after just two seasons in F1. 

There is no doubt that Russell has bags of talent, having risen to up to the F1 grid following back-to-back title triumphs in GP3 and F2, and he has shown highlights of his potential with some sublime displays in the slowest car on the grid over the past 18 months. 

In this hypothetical future where Russell receives a deserved Mercedes promotion, there would be an opening at Williams alongside Nicholas Latifi that could potentially be taken by either Perez or Hulkenberg. 

Williams also has options within its own roster, including reserve and development drivers Jack Aitken and Dan Ticktum. Another possible candidate could come in the shape of Nikita Mazepin - who has been heavily-linked to Haas - if Williams was seeking a further cash injection.

The latter scenario could prompt Haas to field an all-Ferrari-junior line-up consisting of Mick Schumacher and either Callum Ilott or Robert Shwartzman.

A left-field choice from Germany or Mexico  

In this particular vision, Verstappen chooses to stay loyal to Red Bull and Mercedes feels Russell is not quite ready to make the jump to race-winning machinery.

Esteban Ocon of course has ties to Mercedes but it is unlikely the team would opt to take the Frenchman out of his settled new surroundings at Renault. He has also fallen behind Russell in the pecking order in Mercedes’ talent pool. 

Assuming Russell and Ocon are out of the running, there are some other standout, albeit left-field options, which Mercedes could look to in the shape of free agents Perez or Hulkenberg. 

Even if Red Bull wanted to swap out Albon for one of those, Mercedes would have first dibs given it boasts the most sought-after seat on the F1 grid. 

A move for either Perez or Hulkenberg could be a short-term option to fill Hamilton’s seat with a consistent and capable pair of hands to effectively act as back-up to Bottas, providing Mercedes vital time to consider its longer-term options for 2022 and beyond. 

The combination of Bottas-Perez or Bottas-Hulkenberg would probably just be enough to seal another world championship double next year given that teams are carrying over their current cars into 2021 and Mercedes is expected to retain its superiority over the field. 

Hulkenberg in particular, at the age of 33, would be good cover as a holder option before Russell is promoted for 2022. A German driver in a German team once more would be a nice marketing ploy for Mercedes, who previously had Hulkenberg lined-up as its second choice for 2013 had Hamilton not made his switch from McLaren. 

While both drivers would presumably leap at the chance to have an unexpected and potentially championship-winning opportunity at Mercedes, Hulkenberg would be more likely to accept a shorter-term deal than Perez, who has spoken of wanting to become part of a project over the coming years.

This scenario would arguably cause the least disruption in terms of repercussions further down the grid with Perez and Hulkenberg both being out of contract.

The only other change that might occur could come at Red Bull if it opts to replace Albon with the remaining free agent that Mercedes didn’t pick, or by trading Albon back to AlphaTauri for Gasly.

 

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